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English classes fill a vital need for immigrants

American immigrants
American immigrants
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For Mexican immigrants looking to start a new life in the United States, there are many barriers to overcome, but perhaps none more imposing than the language gap. In the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, however, an immigration advocacy group is bridging that gap by providing free English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to families they are assisting with immigration issues.

Foreign nationals looking to gain legal residency status or fighting deportation often seek out the services of the Isenberg Center for Immigration Empowerment (ICIE) in Dallas. According to Reyna Ruiz, who coordinates immigration cases for ICIE, most of the foreign nationals who they help understand the need to know the English language. “They ask us for help in taking English classes,” she said. “They just don’t have the money to afford the class. They want to learn. Many of them have been here for years, but they only know a little English.”

Initially, ICIE founder Ralph Isenberg would help immigrants take ESL classes offered locally, but he found it would be more effective to offer the lessons in-house. The organization is currently setting up a learning center in which foreign nationals can learn English when they visit to work on their immigration case. Isenberg believes that personal responsibility among foreign nationals is imperative, and learning English is essential to an immigrant’s success.

In the early stages of the program, foreign nationals will be required to spend three to four hours a week in the learning center using the Rosetta Stone program. Staff will monitor the progress of each individual to ensure they are learning the language and advancing to the next level of the program. If an individual does not live up to those requirements, ICIE will not help them with their immigration issues. “Our services are always free,” Ruiz said. “When families come to us for help, they only pay the fee that the government charges to file forms. They do not have to pay the $500 or $600 more that they would if they went to an attorney for help.”

ICIE is currently helping 40 families with immigration issues, and plans are to have the parents of each family use the Rosetta Stone program. If there are workstations available, other family members can use the program as well. “We want not just the mother and father to learn English, but the whole family” Ruiz said. “If only one person learns English, they won’t use it at home. They will only speak Spanish, and we want them all to learn English.”

Navigating the red tape of a confusing immigration process is hard enough if you know English, and the government provides little assistance to non-English speaking immigrants. One mistake in understanding or completing a form could jeopardize an immigrant’s efforts for legal residency status. It is a situation immigrants understand full well; although there is a common perception that they have no desire to learn English, Ruiz says that isn’t the case. “Everybody wants the program to start right now. They always tell us they want to take classes and learn English. When we told them we will have this program, they got excited and asked us to let them know when they can start.”

Working for ICIE is more than a job for Ruiz. Her parents, hoping for a better life for their children, brought her from Mexico as a child. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree and a Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from West Texas A&M University. Her brother also earned his degree and plans to become a veterinarian. She understands where the families that come to ICIE for help are coming from, and how learning English makes a difference in the lives of immigrants.

“We need the person to learn to speak English. It’s tough when we’re trying to get information about their case and speaking two languages,” she said. “I tell people, if you can read English, you can fill out an immigration form. When filling out DACA forms, it’s not hard, but people are afraid to make mistakes. They might have to read it two or three times, but they can do it.”

Victor Medina writes for Yahoo News and his political blog His other writing credits include The Dallas Morning News and He has served as a Dallas County election judge and on the Board of Directors of The Sixth Floor Museum. You can follow him on his blog, or on Twitter at @mrvictormedina. He can be reached by email at Click here to receive a weekly email update from To be notified of future stories by Victor Medina, click the SUBSCRIBE link here or at the top of this page.

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