Auburn English Language Educator Sees Immigration Reform as a Way to Help Students Succeed

As an assistant professor of ESOL Education at Auburn University, Jamie Harrison can attest to the growing demand for teachers who specialize in educating young English language learners.

One ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher whom Harrison knows travels to 13 different schools every week, so that students can receive at least some ESL instruction. It’s not the most efficient use of resources, but in sparsely populated rural areas, it continues to be a challenge for school districts to meet the needs of their growing ESOL populations. Teachers, however, can’t exactly sit around and do nothing. “Teachers want to do the best that they can for the students that are in their classrooms,” Harrison says. “We understand that English learners are increasingly in our classrooms, and we want to do the best that we can to support them.”

From her own experience, Harrison can identify with speaking a new language and adapting to a different culture. After graduating from college in Massachusetts and working in the publishing industry, she moved to South Korea and started her teaching career. When she returned to the United States, she continued teaching ESOL in Georgia and earned her doctorate. That led her to Auburn, in Alabama’s 3rd Congressional District. Since Harrison arrived as her university department’s lone ESOL Education professor and coordinator, Auburn’s ESOL Education program has added an additional faculty member and now enrolls 20 teachers-in-training, up from two only several years ago.

Where Harrison lives, in Alabama, lawmakers enacted a strict immigration policy in 2011 that cost the state jobs and hindered economic growth. Now that the law has been partially repealed, the state’s immigrants are contributing more as workers, entrepreneurs, and taxpayers. The most recent data show that Alabama’s immigrants earn approximately $3.6 billion and pay nearly $1.0 billion in federal, state, and local taxes annually.

Educators like Harrison believe, however, that sensible immigration reform could help drive such contributions higher. ESOL teachers confide to Harrison the real stress and anxiety they observe among students worried about their families’ immigration status. If a student fears that a parent could be deported, how can he or she excel in school?

“The system is very complicated,” Harrison explains. However, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, or DACA, certainly has helped, she says. DACA shields many immigrants who came to the country as children from deportation. It allows these kids, many of whom only know America as home, to attend school and work legally in the United States. Today, however, the future of the DACA program is uncertain—a reality many teachers find troubling.

If a student fears that a parent could be deported, how can he or she excel in school?

“Americans need to realize that it’s only going to help our country to educate these children,” Harrison says. When students learn English, their command of science, math, and social studies improves, too. Their test scores go up. With better grades, they can access more opportunities, including college. Harrison believes DACA students deserve that chance to succeed.

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…