Literacy and Immigration in the United States- Is literacy a human right?

I recently shared a blog about an unprecedented court case currently unfolding in Detroit. Effectively, a group of young men are suing the schools for their right to learn to read. They are accusing the district of failing to provide them with the constitutional right to literacy. To view the blog about whether learning to read is a civil right, read it here.

My original conclusion was that every person, particularly each and every child, has the right to learn to read and write. I came to this conclusion while thinking of our children at ESLC and the thousands of other underserved children we could be working with in our country. But then I got to thinking more deeply about the children we serve—where they come from, their families, and their needs—and I realized that learning to read is not just a civil right, but a human right.

Civil rights protect citizens. The United Nations defines human rights as rights that are inherent to all human beings regardless of nationality, sex, ethnicity, race, religion, language or any other status. Human rights are intended to be universal, inalienable, indivisible and non-discriminatory.

According to this April 18, 2013, statement by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization): “Literacy is a fundamental human right and the foundation for lifelong learning. It is fully essential to social and human development in its ability to transform lives.”

Remember, this all started with me reading about the Detroit court case. As you can see, then I did a little “Google research” about human rights. While satisfying my curiosity by surfing the web, it became growingly evident to me that defining literacy as a human right is very similar to the charism and mission statement of the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSNDs). The SSNDs believe the “education means enabling persons to reach the fullness of their potential”. They are called “to educate with the conviction that the world can be changed through the transformation of persons”.

Here in Minnesota, 80 percent of the state’s foreign-born residents live in the seven country metro area.

Did you know?

  • More than eight percent of Minnesotans are immigrants, while nearly seven percent are native-born U.S. citizens with at least one immigrant parent.
  • More than 50,000 citizens in Minnesota live with at least one family member who is an undocumented immigrant.
  • 100,000 undocumented immigrants compromise 23 percent of the immigrant population and two percent of the entire MN population.
  • Four percent of children in MN are citizens living with a least one undocumented family member.
  • More than 60 percent of ESLC children are English Language Learners, most from first or second generation immigrant families.

Do these children, from immigrant and undocumented families, deserve to learn to read? I believe they do.

When I get the opportunity to tutor one-on-one with a child, it is the smile on their face and the look in their eyes that tells me learning to read is an inalienable and universal human right. It pains me to know that there are children going without the opportunity due to a simple lack of resources. Human rights, such as learning to read, cannot go unmet because of simple factors that are within our control. Our children are too important. They are the future employees, leaders, teachers, and neighbors of our community. How can they do any of this without being able to read and write?

Literacy must be a fundamental part to every child’s early education in order for them to pursue opportunities, participate in society, vote, and pursue and support the liberties we take for granted in this nation. In fact, when immigrants and their families come to this country, language and literacy are one of the most basic services they need to navigate life, including passing a math or science test, earning a high school diploma, completing a rental application, becoming a citizen and applying for a job.

Dean Andrew, a former board chair, shares a friend’s story of immigration in this week’s “Teeter Totter”:

TT Abcs Web Image

The inspiration for the cartoon came from his friend Mike. He related an immigrant story about how a friend of his was named. The only English the original Syrian immigrant knew at Ellis Island was “ABC”, so when asked his name, he said “ABC.” The immigrant officer wrote down “Absey!”

Many of the children we tutor begin by learning the ABCs, but there is so much more to learning to read. ESLC helps them by incorporating conversation and vocabulary building skills into each tutoring session. On average, it takes a person seven years to learn English. Yet, the children we serve have not had the opportunity to attend pre-school, speak English, or grow their vocabulary at home.

Finally, serving the children of immigrants is the legacy of our founders, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and need I say, our nation. Most members of this society are descendants of immigrants, with the exception of our indigenous ancestors and those forced here by the slave trade. The SSNDs on the East Side have a long history of educating children living in poverty and immigrants to this area. ESLC continues that tradition by providing free tutoring to the children of immigrants because we believe all children deserve the opportunity to learn to read. We believe literacy is a human right.

If you believe literacy is a human or civil right, join me in sharing this blog or your own message on social media about why reading is a right using #reading4all and link to this blog message. Let’s start a movement that raises awareness about the needs of our children.