“Now It’s More Important Than Ever for Us to Learn English”: The Role of Adult Schools in Protecting Immigrant Rights in California

The day after the presidential election I met with my stunned Citizenship class, and together we tried to sort out what had happened.  I explained the electoral college in much more detail than they would need to pass their naturalization interviews, and they told me, and each other, about the harassment and bullying that was already increasing.  As miserable as we all felt, their determination to persevere was inspiring.  Towards the end of the discussion, one of them said, “Now it’s more important than ever for us to learn English.”

I was a bit surprised by this remark; somehow that idea had not occurred to me. But it seemed to be obvious to all of the students.  As I watched them nod in agreement, I realized that it made perfect sense. On one level, they might have been hoping that eventually learning English would help them to be more accepted by U.S. society.  But in a more immediate sense, they needed English so they could be accutely aware of what was going on around them, and to be able to defend themselves if necessary. Now as always, for immigrants, English is power.

As the Donald Trump administration prepares to take office in a few weeks, California is preparing to protect its immigrant population from harsh immigration policies Trump promised to implement while he was campaigning.  Governor Jerry Brown announced this commitment in a speech shortly after the election.


State legislators have prepared a package of bills that would protect immigrant rights, most of which are concerned with making sure immigrants placed in deportation proceedings have access to lawyers.  This is an important measure, as defendants in immigration court, unlike defendants in criminal trials, do not have a right to a public defender if they cannot afford to pay.  Having an attorney can make all the difference between deportation and a more favorable outcome in an immigration case.


Local entities, from cities to school districts to universities and community colleges are also passing resolutions and otherwise preparing to become safe havens for immigrants.


If California is to successfully defend its immigrant population, a healthy adult school system must be part of its protective  infrastructure.  As my student said, immigrants need English more than ever, and adult schools are the largest provider of English as a Second Language  (ESL) classes in the state, serving more ESL students than community college credit and non-credit programs combined.  California will be better able to protect its immigrant population if immigrants are better able to defend themselves.  They need the English Language proficiency, life skills, and civic engagement training they find in adult schools.

Large numbers of immigrants are gathered in adult school programs, particularly ESL programs, so adult schools are a good place to reach them with information they need.  The school where I teach has already had one “Know Your Rights” presentation for our immigrant students, and there will be many more. If the California legislature is able to pass the package of immigrant protection bills that has been proposed, the state will need to get the information out to the immigrant community.  Adult schools will be an excellent place to disseminate the information.

Immigrants have certain protections in adult schools they don’t have in other places, including community colleges.  The Supreme Court decision of Plyler v. Doe, 457 US 202 (1982) prohibits school districts from asking questions about a student’s immigration status or excluding students on the basis of immigration status.California’s adult schools are part of K-12 school districts, so the protection of Plyler extends to adult school students.  By contrast, community colleges can and do ask about a student’s immigration status, and treat immigrants without papers as foreign students.  Immigrants without documents can never attain California resident status, no matter how long they have lived in the state, and have to pay the much higher out-of-state fees. This puts community college beyond the reach of California’s most vulnerable immigrants, those with low incomes and no documentation. The one exception is the Dreamers, young immigrants who won some protections under DACA.  The universities and community colleges will have an important role to play in defending these young people, many of whom are now in their system, especially if President-Elect Trump rescinds DACA after he becomes president.

But the majority of California’s immigrants are not Dreamers, and they need the English, training, and information they can find at their local adult school.  School districts that are passing resolutions now to protect the immigrant children in their systems would do well to remember that the adult parent is the protector of the immigrant child, and make provisions to protect the parents, grandparents and extended families of their immigrant students.  If they have an adult school, including their adult school students in any resolutions and other measures they take to protect children is a good step for them to take. Another thing they can do is recognize the importance of their adult schools and make sure they have adequate resources.

Along with an insecure future for immigrant populations, the approaching Trump presidency may bring economic uncertainty as well.  It is hard to know just what effect a Trump presidency will have on the economy, but there is certainly the potential for another economic crash such as the country saw in 2008, or perhaps worse.  Adult schools in their current precarious financial state are not equipped to withstand another severe economic downturn.  The governor is putting together his 2017-2018 budget now; this is a crucial time for him to increase the amount of funding for adult schools in that budget.

English is power for immigrants; we need to empower them if we are truly going to protect them.

You can write to Governor Brown and request that he increase funding for adult schools in the 2017-2018 budget here:

Mailing address:

Governor Jerry Brown
c/o State Capitol, Suite 1173
Sacramento, CA 95814

Phone: (916) 445-2841
Fax: (916) 558-3160

You can also email him from here:










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