PORTLAND, Ore. | In a high school classroom, Xavier Chavez is trying to teach a group of restless teenagers about Manifest Destiny - the 19th-century belief that the United States was divinely fated to stretch from sea to shining sea.
But these students are children of immigrants, and they first have to learn English. They might soon have to learn it faster if Oregon voters approve a ballot measure in November to limit the amount of time students can spend in English-as-a-second-language classes.
The proposal, modeled after similar laws in California, Arizona and Massachusetts, is one of a handful of immigration-related ballot measures that will appear this fall on state and local ballots across the nation.
“We call it the battle of the states,” said William Gheen, president of the North Carolina-based group Americans for Legal Immigration. “More people have tried to get something like this on the ballot this year than ever before.”
A year ago, groups that wanted to crack down on illegal immigration had hoped to push the topic front and center in the presidential campaign.
But the once-explosive issue has simmered down nationally, particularly since both major presidential candidates have endorsed a “path to citizenship” for the country’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
Now the immigration battles in November will be fought on ballots in Oregon, Missouri and California.
There are 64,000 non-English speakers enrolled in Oregon’s public schools, the vast majority of whom are Spanish speakers. The proposal would limit high school students to two years of ESL classes, even less for younger students.
Mr. Chavez and his fellow teachers acknowledge that most of their students pick up colloquial English within two years, giving them enough fluency to poke fun at a teammate, answer a text message or order a slice of pizza.
Faculty members worry instead about academic English - a skill that will let students succeed in advanced classes, whether they are deconstructing “Beowulf” or reciting the principles of photosynthesis.
The Oregon initiative is “just a diversion to the real problems,” Mr. Chavez said. “We are not looking at what English language learners need. We are just looking to take away. Let’s talk about the quality of instruction.”
Long-term studies have shown that full mastery of academic English takes five to seven years, said Jim Cummins, a professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in second language acquisition and literacy development.
Mr. Cummins said non-English speakers are trying to catch up to a moving target as their English-speaking classmates also improve. And complex academic language isn’t something students can pick up on the streets, he said, because it’s generally used only in classrooms or textbooks.
But Bill Sizemore, sponsor of the Oregon measure and a longtime anti-tax activist who was the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee in 1998, said the measure is intended to help immigrants, not sideline them.
He said schools warehouse their students in ESL courses for longer than necessary to keep federal and state money flowing.
If Oregonians approve the change, students will join the mainstream faster with the tools they need to compete, he said.
Voters in Arizona approved a similar measure in 2000. Since then, there’s been no reduction in the dropout rate, and no evidence that ESL students are doing any better on standardized tests, said Beth Witt, who is involved in Arizona’s ESL organization.
In Missouri, voters will decide whether to make English the only language of state government. Passage of the measure would affect ballots, driver’s license exams and other documents. Similar laws are already in place in 30 other states.
In California, immigrant-related language is tucked into a broad-ranging crime measure, Proposition 6, that would eliminate bail for illegal immigrants charged with violent or gang-related felonies, and require sheriffs to inform federal immigration officials when illegal immigrants are arrested.