SALT LAKE CITY — First a worldwide pandemic. Then comes a presidential order the White House says is intended to save more than a half-million jobs by denying entry to international educators, tech workers and others.
In Utah public schools, the order could have “devastating effects” on some dual language immersion programs.
Robert Austin, international initiatives and social studies specialist for the Utah State Board of Education, said while the driving argument behind President Donald Trump’s proclamation is to protect the U.S. economy in a time of pandemic, “the reality is, we cannot possibly staff these positions in dual language immersion with folks here in the U.S. It’s just not possible.”
Austin said he hopes that with ongoing reviews of the order, the Trump administration will reconsider its suspension of entry of foreign nationals under J visas and other visas until the end of the year.
“These are real unintended consequences that we can hopefully try to educate those decision-makers to reconsider because it will have pretty devastating effects on schools that need more predictability at this unpredictable time,” Austin said.
There are about 200 dual language immersion programs in Utah public schools, Austin noted. The program employs a 50-50 model in which students spend half of their school day instructed exclusively in a target language and half in English. Most programs start in first grade, although some begin in kindergarten.
Each year, Utah schools hire 60 to 70 native teachers from China, Brazil, France, Germany, Mexico, Peru and Spain to staff these programs. Teachers come to the United States and stay for three years, and sometimes as long as five years.
Some schools hire American teachers for these positions, but some students say native speakers help them develop better spoken language and teach them about culture from their personal experience.
John and Lani Hilton of Orem, have five children in dual language immersion programs in elementary, junior high and high school levels. All are learning Chinese.
John Hilton III, an associate professor of religion at BYU, said dual language immersion programs not only have taught them another language but they have helped them become global citizens.
“So really the difference is you can have an education where you graduate bilingual or not. This is amazing because what a huge edge it gives you in future opportunities doing business, connecting with other people or traveling. It just opens up this whole other world of opportunities that otherwise you wouldn’t have,” he said.
The couple’s son Joseph, who is 13, said his native Chinese teachers have helped him develop better spoken language and they have taught him about their culture based on firsthand knowledge. He’s been in the immersion program since elementary school.
When the Hiltons traveled to China for five weeks last summer, Joseph Hilton said he was grateful that he knew how to play the Chinese board game Xiangqi, which is similar to chess.
“It’s just a great way to like go out to a park in the evening and go and play this game with people and connect to Chinese culture and people,” he said.
The Hilton’s 15-year-old daughter, Maria, was able to use her Chinese language skills to reach out to victims of a tourist bus crash outside Bryce Canyon National Park last fall that killed four people and injured several others.
Students in her class wrote get well cards to the tourists and several of the native Chinese teachers visited the tourists in hospitals, at area hotels, translated for their medical appointments and even brought them homemade Chinese dishes to make them feel more at home until they were well enough to return to China.
It’s working against the United States’ interests. Chinese is a critical language in the United States. The U.S. government is making large efforts to promote learning Chinese but this policy is harming it because students who already are signed up for and want to learn Chinese now will have less access to highly qualified Chinese teachers.
–John Hilton III, associate professor of religion at BYU
A Washington School District administrator said the humanitarian response would not have been possible without dual language immersion programs in Utah.
Maria Hilton, who has been learning Chinese since elementary school, said while many American teachers who speak Chinese have good command of the language, the classroom experience with a native Chinese teacher is “totally different.”
Learning their stories and about their lives enriches the classroom experience, she said.
“It’s just really is different having a native teacher in the classroom because they’re actually Chinese, so you feel like you can learn more from them. Just listening to them you get more of the accent and it’s just more like a full Chinese experience, like real immersion,” she said.
John Hilton said he hopes the Trump administration will carve out an exception for foreign language teachers to enter the United States.
“It’s working against the United States’ interests. Chinese is a critical language in the United States. The U.S. government is making large efforts to promote learning Chinese but this policy is harming it because students who already are signed up for and want to learn Chinese now will have less access to highly qualified Chinese teachers. So, the short version is, I think it’s a major mistake,” he said.
The Trump administration has said the president’s order suspending many work visas and extending a green card freeze will save the jobs of more than a half-million Americans. Austin said these jobs are typically not filled by Americans, and to deny international teachers entry to the United States not only dilutes students’ opportunities to learn from native speakers, it disrupts teachers’ plans to move across the globe, many with family members.
“So I have like 90 people right now whose lives are in the balance regarding what they’re going to do in the fall,” Austin said.
Many teachers have relinquished their teaching positions because they were planning to teach in Utah this fall. Some have leased homes and made arrangements to rent their homes in their home countries while they work in the United States.
“They may have made travel arrangements and gotten their children ready for the new adventure. Very often these teachers are risk-taking, imaginative, adventurous people who want to bring their skills and talents to Utah and it’s paid off in terms of the kind of language learning that’s occurring across the state. So it’s a real dilemma,” Austin said.