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Framingham denies additional funding for ESL program

Framingham Town Meeting members rejected a resolution last week that recommended more money for an adult English as a Second Language program that has become fodder in a local debate over illegal immigration.

Town Meeting is traditionally where residents debate whether to build a new library and approve employee salaries. But in recent weeks, Framingham’s Town Meeting has become a forum for discussions about immigration.

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Earlier this month, in a narrow vote, members asked the town’s Board of Selectmen to verify the immigration status of participants in Framingham’s English language program. Supporters of that effort said it was an issue of fairness, since the program has hundreds on the waiting list and legal immigrants should be given preference.

Adam Steiner, a Town Meeting member who opposed that resolution, said the selectmen shouldn’t be involved in checking immigration status. Steiner said he proposed adding money to the ESL program in response to the previous resolution and that town representatives could further discuss the immigration issue.

“I disagreed strongly with that and wanted to bring the issue back. The budget was a way to bring the issue back,” Steiner said.

Steiner said he understands why his measure failed and that some residents were reluctant to add more money to the budget even though they opposed the immigration verification measure.

Steiner said as Congress debates immigration reform, Framingham officials will again discuss the issue locally.

“I think it’s an issue that Framingham faces because of the large immigration population,” Steiner said.

More than a quarter of the town’s 67,844 residents were born in another country. The largest majority of the town’s foreign-born residents, about 35 percent or 6,202 people, are from Brazil, according to the most recent census figures.

Framingham ESL Plus, the town’s largest adult program for English-language learners, serves about 750 students and operates as a department of the public school system.

The program is so popular that admission is through a lottery system and the waiting list includes about 400 individuals.

But the program has also come under scrutiny from some residents.

Last year, after receiving a complaint from an anti-illegal immigration group, Framingham ESL Plus began asking its participants who took seats paid for by a federal grant about their residency status. Under federal law, participants benefitting from the grant money must be citizens or legal residents of the country.

Framingham ESL Plus does not ask for documentation to verify participant answers to the immigration question.

Framingham’s Board of Selectmen will study the recommendation to verify the immigration status ESL class participants after Town Meeting ends, officials have said.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.
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