Mexico quietly helps emigrants to US learn Spanish

For more than a decade, as the immigration debate has swelled on both sides of the border, the Mexican government has been quietly providing money, materials and even teachers to American schools, colleges and nonprofit organizations.

Women ride a city bus designated for women only in Mexico City, Jan. 24, 2008. The city started the female-only city bus program after complaints from women's groups of groping and verbal harassment on public transportation. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

MIAMI (AP) -- For more than a decade, as the immigration debate has swelled on both sides of the border, the Mexican government has been quietly providing money, materials and even teachers to American schools, colleges and nonprofit organizations.

The programs aren't substitutes for U.S. curricula, but educators familiar with them say they provide a lifeline for adult students with little formal education by helping them become literate in Spanish - and by extension, English.

Yet many educators are wary of even talking about the programs, fearing they might stoke an anti-immigrant backlash.

The Mexican government, which spends more than $1 million annually on the programs, has many reasons to provide the aid to the immigrants and their children. The programs allow it to give back to the growing number of Mexicans living legally and illegally in the U.S. Behind oil, remittances from these individuals are the second-largest source of foreign income for the Mexican economy - almost $24 billion last year.

"We don't want the Mexicans in the exterior to feel like milk cows being expressed for the resources they were sending back," said Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez, head of the Mexican government's Institute for Mexicans Abroad, which oversees most of the programs.

Mexicans abroad need an education to represent the country well, he said.

"The image and prestige of Mexico is inextricably linked to the image and prestige of these communities in the U.S.," Gonzalez said.

He also acknowledged that many of the adult participants are likely illegal immigrants, a group the U.S. government doesn't want to allow to stay, let alone have to support.

"Mexican involvement in American public education is another symptom of how things are different than the Ellis Island era," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks to limit immigration. "With technology, distance doesn't really matter. You never really leave the old country behind."

Krikorian said the U.S. shouldn't rely on Mexico to help integrate immigrants.

"Both the public and a lot of lawmakers want immigration on the cheap," he said. "Contracting out to the Mexican government is a cop-out."

Such responses are exactly what educators fear might take the few educational opportunities away from people like Alfredo Ortiz, 43, of Chattanooga, Tenn., who came to the U.S. from the state of Chiapas with a third-grade education in 1992 and began picking cucumbers before becoming a landscaper. For years, he says, he didn't have time to study, but more than that, the thought of re-entering school terrified him.

Then he heard about a new program called "Plaza Comunitaria," or Community Plaza, at Chattanooga State Technical College, where he could study Mexican elementary and middle school subjects online, with assistance from volunteers who receive stipends from Mexico. That seemed less daunting than jumping directly into English, and he quickly enrolled.

Much to his surprise, he was soon confident enough to study an hour a night in Spanish and an hour a night in English, earning his middle school diploma from Mexico along the way.

"When I achieved understanding of the Spanish and how to conjugate those verbs, it was so much easier to understand how to conjugate in English," he said. "It also sets an example for my kids. They see I struggled, so they should reach even farther."

Plaza Comunitaria is the Mexican government's biggest educational export program. It began in 2002 in San Diego and now operates at 370 sites in 35 states from Oregon to Florida, providing $1 million in grants. But it's not the only one. Mexico also donates nearly 10,000 Spanish-language school books a year to U.S. academic institutions and community centers, sends more than 100 teachers to the U.S. to teach summer classes and has a pilot program with the University of Texas to help immigrant students receive U.S. credit for classes they took in Mexico, among other programs. Gonzalez said the costs of most of those programs were mostly in-kind and did not have the numbers.

Sonia Jaramillo, who has helped coordinate Plaza Comunitaria programs through California's Monterey County Office of Education, says experiences like Ortiz's are common. Many of her adult students come in for the Mexican classes because they feel more comfortable, but they quickly move on to English, or even courses in parenting and computers.

In western Oregon, the Estacada School District is using the online classes not just for adults but to help immigrant teens keep up with other subjects as they learn English.

"There's all this curriculum online. It's interactive, it's pretty cool, and it's free," said Joni Tabler, a former ESL teacher turned charter school principal. "A lot of their curriculum is a lot higher level than what we teach."

In St. Lucie County, along Florida's eastern coast, public school superintendent Michael Landon said the district was thrilled to receive crates of free textbooks from Mexico. They aren't part of the curriculum, but students can use them while they learn English or Spanish.

Across the state in Clearwater, near Tampa, the Mexican government has paid for several teachers to offer the young children of immigrants summer enrichment classes at a community center. On a hot summer day, the students skipped to the tune of traditional Mexican jigs before learning Spanish stories.

Juan Carlos Baldizar, 10, of Clearwater, was born in the U.S. but has shuttled between the two countries with his parents, both indigenous Mayans. He said the classes are cool because he learns "new stuff about Mexico," things his parents tried to tell him but he never really paid attention to, like the Mayan calendar.

Juan Carlos said being able to practice his written Spanish also helped him feel more comfortable at home and at school.

"If your mom was born in Mexico, and like the children are born in the United States, you have to learn two cultures," he said. "It's confusing sometimes."

The Mexican government is not the only foreign government to provide educational assistance in the U.S. France, for instance, has provided resources for years, and Japan offers books and other materials through the Japanese Foundation.

But neither country supplies anywhere near the number of immigrants Mexico sends to the U.S. each year, and their target populations tend to be more affluent and better educated, making them far less likely targets for anti-immigration sentiment.

In St. Lucie, angry e-mails and letters to the editor bombarded the school following reports of the donated Mexican texts after some local media mistakenly reported the books were replacing standard Florida texts. The controversy eventually died down.

Tabler faced a similar backlash in Oregon, at least at first.

"We don't want to get into political issues. We just want to educate kids," she said. "And if the curriculum from Mexico is a good tool for us to be successful, then we're going to use it."

(This version corrects that Estacada is in western Oregon, not eastern Oregon.)

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