You Say You Want Immigrants to Learn English? Put Your Money Where Your Boca Is

If there is one thing that everyone involved in the immigration debate should be able to agree on -- whether one is pro- or anti-immigrant or native-born, undocumented or not -- it's that all immigrants learning English is a good thing for them, their families, and for our society as a whole.
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People are lined up, waiting, sometimes for many hours just to get a seat. Are they waiting for Katy Perry tickets? For the new iPhone? Nope. They wait in the hope that they'll be able to register for English classes offered by the New York Public Library, classes that will give non-English speakers the single most important key to unlocking success in this country.

"I need to learn English," said Rafael Villeta, one of 153 people waiting to register for classes at the Bronx library on a hot Tuesday afternoon in July. "Every job, the first question is, 'You know English?'"

The students don't have to pay a dime, and the people who register them don't ask about immigration status. About 60 percent of the $5 million annual cost comes from donated funds, with the rest coming from the federal and city government. Anthony Marx, the library's president, provided the numbers: The program currently offers just under 8,000 seats, compared to 2,500 three years ago. If they had the funding, the library would double its offerings, according to Marx.

If they had the funding. Could there be anything more obvious than the fact that funding these classes pays for itself? Think of the increased economic productivity that comes from being able to speak English, and the reduction, in the long run, in the amount of services the government would have to provide. Beyond the costs and benefits to government, think of the actual people whose lives would be improved by being able to earn more. Think about the children who would have an easier time learning English in school because their parents can speak it as well. We're talking about a boomerang effect.

And it's not just about dollars and cents. People who speak English can participate more fruitfully in our society and in our democracy. Furthermore, better communication can, one would hope, further strengthen the bonds among Americans across lines of culture and ancestry, as well as between immigrants and the native-born. These are obvious pluses.

We live in an era when passions about immigration and immigrants are running high. The right wing expresses extremist anti-immigrant views as well as an ugly form of nativism, views that have a disproportionately strong influence on the political process. As Christopher Parker at Brookings noted, "People who are highly identified with the Tea Party are anxious about Latino immigrants taking over 'their' country."

There is no question that anti-Latino bigotry plays a part in the vitriol being spewed at undocumented immigrants this summer and in recent years overall. And there is no question that tea party Republicans are using that bigotry for their own selfish aims, riling up voters and hoping to turn out their base in a midterm election in which, they believe, Latinos will stay home.

However, not every single person who expresses concerns about immigration is motivated by hate. An excellent article by Dan Hopkins over at Five Thirty Eight summarizes the discussion quite well, with a number of links to scholarly sources that document public opinion. Many who take an "anti-immigration" position express fears regarding the potential loss of a common language. Hopkins cites the story of one focus group participant whose views on immigration were informed by the experience of ordering "a (rhymes with "hay") hamburger" and being brought eight hamburgers.

From personal experience with my own relatives, I can tell you that many people, in particular the elderly and/or the hard of hearing, get exceptionally frustrated trying to understand heavily accented English over the phone. While one might be tempted to dismiss those concerns, it is a real problem in particular for those who are economically vulnerable and rely on communicating successfully by phone to get needed services. In other words, the more people who speak English well, the more positively native-born Americans will feel toward immigration as a whole.

Of course, it is an even bigger problem for those who don't speak English and may not always be able to reach someone who speaks their language, especially for those whose native language is less common. On a related note, we recently saw Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy express outrage after "a small Texas town [was] forced to answer 911 from stranded illegals in Spanish!" Compassion for people in an emergency obviously isn't on the front burner over at Fox.

We need to understand and address these concerns regarding a common language and the impact increased numbers of immigrants over the past three decades is having on our cohesiveness as a national community. We need to convince the people who express such concerns that our approach is the right one.

Ours centers on comprehensive immigration reform. The bipartisan Senate bill passed last year mandates that undocumented immigrants show English proficiency or be enrolled in an English course just in order to apply for lawful permanent residence. The Senate bill (which would likely pass the House if only John Boehner would bring it to a vote. Discharge petition, anyone?) also contains a number of specific measures to encourage integration as well as strengthen our national cohesion and sense of collective identity:

Compared to reform proposals from 2006 and 2007, S. 744 contains stronger devices designed to facilitate immigrants' language acquisition, civic engagement, financial self-sufficiency, and upward economic mobility. In particular, the bill creates three new organizational structures: the Office of Citizenship and New Americans, the Task Force on New Americans, and the United States Citizenship Foundation.

[The Office of Citizenship and New Americans] will be responsible for promoting training on citizenship responsibilities for new immigrants, providing advice on integrating immigrants into society, establishing goals for immigrant integration, and providing information about English and citizenship education programs.

It's important to note that although we can and should do more to help immigrants integrate, they are already doing so, with Hispanic immigrants doing just as well on that front by the second generation as any other immigrant group.

Here's what it comes down to: If there is one thing that everyone involved in the immigration debate should be able to agree on -- whether one is pro- or anti-immigrant or native-born, undocumented or not -- it's that all immigrants learning English is a good thing for them, their families, and for our society as a whole. The program run by the New York Public Library is turning away people by the thousands, demonstrating that immigrants want to learn our language.

Instead of ginning up fear about disease or discontent about having to "Press 1 for English," wouldn't it be great if anti-immigrant extremists like Louie Gohmert and Steve King got behind, say, increasing funding for English classes? That would be an American Dream.

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