Internet resources for what you need to know about NYC Immigrants
Five Favorite Sites For Beginners

The Topic
Immigrants are foreign-born people and their families who enter the United States and settle. This is a catch-all phrase that usually includes everybody from the U.S-born children of foreigners to naturalized citizens to the undocumented.
The Context
New York owes much of its growth and character to its traditional role as the point of entry and settlement for immigrants from all over the world. The city may now be experiencing the largest wave of immigration in its history, with immigrants and their children making up to as much as 60 percent of the city's population. Most of today's immigrants come from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and the former Soviet Union and are, for the most part, younger and darker than immigrants from the past. While the federal government sets overall immigration policy, state and local policy directly affects immigrants on a wide range of issues, from education to health care to political representation.
The Reporter
An immigrant from Bangkok, Thailand, Chaleampon Ritthichai is the editor of The Citizen.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Immigration.

By Chaleampon Ritthichai

Regents Exams Rule, Immigrant Students Drop Out

When her parents decided to immigrate in 1999, Bushra Algutaini had just finished 11th grade in her native Yemen. Like most immigrants who enter high school late, Algutaini struggled with English and was lacking credits to graduate as the same time as her new classmates. Because she was in the class of 2000, she had to face another major obstacle.

Since the year 2000, the New York State Board of Regents (see also Education column) has required that all high school students pass the English Regents exam in order to graduate, regardless of how long they have been in the United States or their level of English proficiency.

"Many of the immigrant kids who came here late are dropping out at a very high rate," said Jill Chaifetz, executive director of Advocates for Children. "What we're seeing now is the effect of that requirement."

Last year only 30 percent of students who are designated (in the jargon of the trade) English Language Learners graduated from high school in four years. This contrasts with a more than 50 percent of English-speaking students who graduated in four years, according to a recent report by Advocates for Children and The New York Immigration Coalition.

The drop out rate is expected to rise steadily as more Regents exams will be added each year until 2005, when all students will have to pass English, mathematics, U.S. history and global studies.

"Kids come in from different countries at different levels of schooling," said Chaifetz, who added that conditions in their home countries had forced many such students to interrupt their studies.

But even immigrants with consistent schooling could have problems passing some of the Regents exams. Jorgji Dhima, who moved here from Albania when he was 17, excelled in math and science but still had a hard time in social science. "I had a lot of problems with terminology and spelling," said Dhima, "It took a lot of adjustment because we learned British English back home."

In addition to lagging behind academically, more than half of New York City's 131,129 non-English speaking students are much older than their classmates. They are at a greater risk of dropping out and less likely even to take the Regents exams, according to a NYC Board of Education report.

Some New York high schools deny admission to immigrants whose language skills place them at a grade level that is low for their age. "I was going to be 18 soon and still needed a lot of credits. So they didn't want me," Dhima said.

Algutaini shared a similar experience. "I thought I would get to go to high school and learn English," Algutani said. "But they told me I was too old and didn't speak enough English."

After several different schools turned them down, Dhima and Algutaini enrolled at Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School, which is for non-English speakers between the ages of 17 and 21.

The NYC Board of Education reported that 85 percent of the 38,645 high school English Language Learners will never master enough English to exit bilingual or English as a Second Language programs.

These statistics are often used to demonstrate the failure of bilingual education. Critics have argued that many immigrant kids are placed in bilingual classes for too long and fail to learn English altogether.

But many immigrant advocates disagree. "ESL classes and bilingual education make it possible for immigrant children to learn math and science at a rate equal to English speaking children while they're in the process of learning English," Chaifetz said. "But the goal is to move kids out of bilingual education. Kids who enter later need intensive classes before school, after school and summer school."

"There's not that much chance to speak and practice English. It's only used on the street or when I go to school," said Dhima explaining why some immigrant have difficulty passing Regents exams.

Many immigrant students are able to tackle the Regents exam only after making a huge time commitment to study both English and regular high school subjects.

In addition to attending six hours of classes, Dhima and Algutaini spent at least three hours every weekday to study by themselves or with tutors. They took preparation classes for U.S. history and English Regents exams while trying to master their English in ESL classes.

Algutani passed the Regents exams and graduated in 2001. Dhima received his high school diploma in the summer of 2002.

But should the state require all immigrant high schoolers to spend this much time at school? What about the ones who don't make it? "New York State has created this one-size-fits-all graduation standard that makes no sense," Chaifetz said.

Five Favorite Sites For Beginners:

  • Immigration and Naturalization Service, the federal agency (within the United States Department of Justice) that provides services to immigrants (answering questions, processing applications for visas and for citizenship, etc.) and at the same time enforces the nation's immigration laws. INS also has a New York City district office and the New York Asylum Office
  • The New York City Mayor's Office Of Immigrant Affairs and Language Services, assists immigrants in a range of services and information. Here you can link to information about, for example, the New York Police Department New Immigrant Unit, where specially trained police officers conduct sensitivity training in the precincts and at the police academy, lecture at meetings of immigrant groups and work with the ethnic media. (212) 374-5112
  • Citizenship NYC, a city program, assists immigrant recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and federal food stamps to become citizens. (888) 374-5100
  • New York Immigration Hotline - open 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM Monday through Friday and providing free and confidential information in 15 languages (Arabic, Bengali, French, Haitian-Creole, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Polish, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, and Urdu) about everything from immigration law to employment discrimination to health referrals to a list of non-profit agencies that assist immigrants. (718) 899-4000
  • National Immigration Forum, a national pro-immigration advocacy group, with a rundown of facts about immigration, current issues, useful links.
  • Genealogical Resources in the New York Metropolitan Area, published by The Jewish Genealogical Society, for those wishing to do research on their immigrant ancestors.

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