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This story was produced in partnership with WABE.
Ever since Angela arrived in Metro Atlanta over a year ago, she’s been trying hard to learn English. Unaware of any classes she could access that were close to her home in Forest Park, she’s had to try to teach herself. So she’s been taking children’s books and translating them into Spanish with her phone. Today, she opens Dora’s Big Surprise, and shows her translations, written in blue ink.
“‘How will we get across?’ Boots wondered,’” reads the book. “‘We can ride that raft across the Wide River!’ Dora said.”
“¿Cómo vamos a llegar? Boots se preguntó. ¡Podemos montar en este balsa a través del río ancho! Dijo Dora,” writes Angela above it.
Angela crossed a river herself, the Río Grande, after she left Nicaragua in 2022. She was a single mom—with four sons ranging in ages 9 to 21—working as a cook in a hospital kitchen in San Juan. It was too hard to earn enough money to support them though, she said, with rising prices and political instability.
So she set her hopes on the U.S. She made the month-long journey to the U.S.-Texas border on her own, leaving her sons back at home. In Texas, she said that she turned herself in to immigration authorities. Angela (who didn’t want her last name included because of her pending immigration status) doesn’t have a Social Security number, a work permit, or any form of U.S. ID, but she said she has an immigration lawyer, and an upcoming court date.
In the meantime, she’s looking for work. A few months ago, she said she found a posting on Facebook for a job at a hotel and wanted to apply. One of the requirements, though, was to speak English at least 50 percent of the time. She’s realizing more and more that for opportunities to open up to her, she needs to learn English.
“Es importante porque interactuamos con la gente de este país . . . nos damos cuenta hallamos más posibilidades con trabajo mejores.” It’s important to interact with the people of this country . . . we realize we find more possibilities with better work, she said.
Angela lives in a brick ranch off Jonesboro Road in Forest Park, which she rents with several family members, including her six-month-old baby Zoe, who was born in Metro Atlanta. On the weekends, she works out of the kitchen, selling tamales, which brings in roughly $800 a month, much of which she sends back home to her sons.
“No es suficiente. Por eso busco trabajo.” It’s not enough. That’s why I’m looking for work.
Angela is among over 400,000 undocumented residents in Georgia, who are banned from accessing state funded ESL (English as a second language) classes, administered through the University System of Georgia, because of their immigration status. And though metro Atlanta ranks in the top 20 metropolitan areas in the country with the largest number of people without legal residency status and 40 percent of its immigrants are undocumented by some estimates, Georgia, along with Arizona, are the only two states that don’t allow those residents from accessing any state-funded adult education programs, which includes ESL classes.
“Me mire como una cosa mala.” They looked at me like a bad thing.Angela, recalling her time in Alabama
States receive adult education funding through federal programs, said Jacob Hofstetter, Policy Analyst at the Washington D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute. This year Georgia will receive over $2 million from the federal government for adult English lessons. And, said Hofstetter, “there’s no federal restriction on adult education funding going to unauthorized immigrants.”
However, in Georgia, that access to adult education was effectively banned in 2010, when a new state law required state agencies and contractors that provided adult education to require students to show lawful proof of residency. The year after the ban was enacted, there was a 60 percent drop in ESL class enrollment.
Some universities have tried to plug the gap by working with community groups to offer classes to a fast growing immigrant population.
“We’ve been fortunate that we can find some types of funding from private foundations that can allow us to offer courses to everybody, anyone who is living in the the state of Georgia, regardless of their status,” said John Bunting, senior lecturer at Georgia State University’s (GSU) Intensive English Language Program.
There are organizations like Ser Familia and The Latin American Association that offer classes and don’t ask for proof of legal residency. But because they’re headquartered in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, they’re hard for those living in the south metro area to access.
Two months ago, Angela said a friend told her about an ESL class that didn’t require any documentation. But it was 40 minutes away, and she wouldn’t be able to bring her baby Zoe with her. It would be ideal, she said, to be able to attend a class that was closer to her home in Forest Park.
Latinos and Asians make up nearly one third of the population of Forest Park and at least 13,000 residents in the greater Clayton County area are undocumented. But access to resources for immigrant communities is limited, compared to the north metro area.
There is a growing recognition of their needs.
“We held a meeting in the south metro area, and the immigrant communities . . . felt disconnected from Gwinnett and DeKalb in a way that like, everyone’s pretty aware that that is the hub where a lot of organizations are supporting with services,” said Alberto Feregrino, Georgia lead organizer with CASA, a nonprofit headquartered in Washington DC that recently opened an office in Atlanta.
In 2019, voters elected Hector Gutierrez to the Forest Park City Council, making him the first person of Latino descent to serve as a city councilman. Gutierrez has been working to bring more resources to the city’s Hispanic residents, recently fostering a partnership with Los Niños Primero, a nonprofit headquartered in Sandy Springs, to expand its early childhood education programming into Clayton County Public Schools (CCPS). CCPS does offer English language classes to adults, and doesn’t ask about residency status to enroll, said Dr. Chantil Normil, director of second language learning at CCPS, but the offerings are limited to people who have kids attending schools in the district.
Ser Familia also announced the opening of an office in Clayton County last year—which plans to offer ESL classes this fall, along with counseling services and educational programs. And CASA plans to focus on supporting not just families living in the Buford Highway corridor, but also those living in the Forest Park area.
But Angela doesn’t know about any upcoming offerings. “No. No sé,” she responded, when asked if knew of any.
Still, she doesn’t regret coming here.
Angela moved to Georgia after living in Alabama for two months. She said after two subsequent incidents where she was called derogatory and racist names when she was out shopping, she decided to come to Atlanta. “Me mire como una cosa mala,” she said, recalling the experience. They looked at me like a bad thing.
She likes that there are so many other Latinos in Georgia, and she says she hasn’t experienced any racism since she’s been here. When asked what she likes about life in Atlanta she says, “todo.” Everything.
She’s more comfortable here, even though some of Georgia’s laws (the state also doesn’t allow undocumented residents to access driver’s licenses) exclude her.
Until those change, she’ll rely on her phone and her children’s books to get a grasp of the language.
Editor: Kamille Whittaker and Christina Lee
Contributing Reporters: Emily Wu Pearson and Chamain Cruz, WABE
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