Gabriel Ortiz said taking English classes through a program at Mesa Junior High School helped him communicate with doctors when he came down with pneumonia.
The classes also came in handy when he was asked by police to provide information about a crime he may have witnessed.
Same goes for when he needed to rent a hotel room in Flagstaff.
But Proposition 300, which voters approved in November, will soon require illegal immigrants such as Ortiz to seek classes elsewhere. They will be precluded from classes funded with public money, and some may have to pay for private lessons if they wish to continue their education.
“I can’t pay for classes,” Ortiz said in Spanish. ”It’s a lot just to maintain the $850 for my apartment, to support my family — my wife and daughter.”
The new law requires students in state-funded adult education programs to prove their legal status before they can enroll. It also restricts illegal immigrants from receiving in-state tuition, public financial assistance or access to statefunded care programs without proof of legal residency.
The law went into effect earlier this year. But so far, instructors of adult education programs throughout the state have not yet started checking identification because the state Department of Education is unclear about how to implement it.
“There is the issue of asking the question, which of you are here legally, and then there is the whole issue of verifying that,” said Karen Liersch, the state’s deputy associate superintendent for adult education. “Does the law want the question asked, or does the law want it verified, and what do they want for verification?”
To answer those questions, the Department of Education sent a letter in December to the state attorney general’s office asking for clarification.
Officials hope to hear back by March so they can begin to check identification. The adult education providers will then be required to report back to the Legislature by June 30 about the number of people who were turned away from classes because they could not prove they were here legally.
“We are in a holding pattern right now,” said Jackie Jooyan, an adult education instructor for English language at the Mesa Unified School District. “We are just waiting to hear what we’re supposed to do and when we’re told, we’ll do it.”
There are 33 different statefunded programs across Arizona that offer classes on the English language, GED preparation and basic education at about 200 locations.
More than 1 million adults are eligible for the programs, which receive $9.5 million from the federal government and another $4.5 million from the state. There is a two-year waiting list for these classes, with English classes having the longest wait time, Liersch said.
While Liersch expects some immigrants to be turned away from classes, she said she does not anticipate a major impact on enrollment. Students on waiting lists who are eligible will be bumped up to fill slots. Those who cannot enroll might have to find private classes out in the community.
Bev Tittle-Baker, CEO of CARE Partnership in Mesa, said she won’t be surprised if the demand for her organization’s free English class increases soon. She’s not sure how to handle an increase.
“We’re just going to have to be innovative on this,” she said. “There are a lot of goodhearted people out there. I’m sure they’ll figure out ways to do this.”
Juan José Calvario Ramirez, a legal resident who takes English classes through the Mesa district, said he does not believe the law will deter immigrants who truly want to learn English.
“You can learn the English in your own house,” he said. “With the television. With the radio. By cassette tape. Private lessons in your home. I did that when
I first started.”