The Immigration Debate: English Matters

One aspect of the proposed immigration reform that has attracted little attention is the requirement that applicants for legal status show proficiency in English. The issue should be central to the discussion, because whether immigrants become productive participants in the American economy or drag it down depends largely on their ability to speak the majority language.

Two primary objections to the plan for legalizing undocumented workers put forward by a bipartisan group of eight senators is that these immigrants will become dependent on the government and depress wages. The Heritage Foundation has produced papers arguing that the reform would make more than 11 million illegal immigrants eligible for welfare in about ten years, costing U.S. taxpayers $6.3 trillion over the next 50 years.

In order to hedge against newly legalized immigrants becoming a national burden, it is essential to ensure they learn English. U.S. Census data suggests that immigrants' opportunities for gainful employment increase dramatically with knowledge of English. Those with English fluency earn nearly twice the average hourly wage of non-English speakers and about the same as native-born Americans. According to a paper by Jennifer Cheeseman Day and Hyon B. Shin, issued by the Census Bureau in 2005, "Those with the lowest English speaking ability had the lowest employment rate, lowest rate of full-time employment, and lowest median earnings."

Most illegal immigrants come to the U.S. with little education and poor English skills. Many of them do eventually learn English, but those who don't are more likely to slip into poverty. The 2010 Census reports that about 19 percent of the foreign born (both legal and illegal) are living below the poverty level, compared with 15 percent of native-born Americans, but the disparity is less for English-speaking immigrants because English fluency usually leads to increased income. Other factors that contribute to economic success are time spent in the United States and education. Of course, the longer immigrants are here, the better their chances of acquiring English, and the more fluent they are, the better their educational and work opportunities.

The proposed reform stipulates that before undocumented immigrants can acquire a green card, they must "to go to the back of the line of prospective immigrants, pass an additional background check, pay taxes, [and] learn English and civics." They will not be eligible for welfare because the proposed reform retains current restrictions on illegal immigrants' receiving federal public benefits. Because of these requirements, by the time illegals are ready to apply for legal status, they will have been here long enough to learn English and become integrated into the American economic system.

Candidates for citizenship have always had to prove proficiency in English, but candidates for green cards have not. By applying the language requirement to the latter group, we encourage illegal immigrants to acquire an tool that is essential for their success. As a society, it behooves us to stress English acquisition in elementary and high school, and also to make English classes available to adults. Several countries provide language training for new immigrants. Among the most successful programs is the Israeli ulpan, which provides intensive instruction in Hebrew to adult immigrants. Of course, adult educational programs are expensive, but it may be even more expensive to keep illegal immigrants on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

Naturally, the English requirement will not solve all the immigration challenges we face. As long as our borders remain porous and people continue to flood here illegally, a significant segment of the population will remain marginalized and living in the shadows. And there are still many issues to resolve involving visa categories, family unification, health, and education. However, insisting that immigrants learn English before they can acquire a green card is an sensible step toward ensuring that those who are here now will become integrated, productive members of society.

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