Jovita Mendez of Escondido, California became an American citizen in October. Ordinarily, this would be cause for celebration, as we welcome a new member of the American family. Mendez may struggle to fit in, though, because the native of Mexico still can’t speak English; in fact, she can’t read or write in any language.
Legislation passed by Congress in 1990 exempts certain individuals, based on age and length of residence in the United States, from the requirement that they speak, read, and write English before obtaining citizenship. Lawmakers put this exemption in place because so many immigrants were not acquiring even a rudimentary grasp of English (which is all that the citizenship test requires), even after decades of living in the U.S. The latest Census Bureau data show that the number of people speaking a foreign language at home reached 65.5 million last year—double the number in 1990 and triple that of 1980.
Between 2012 and 2014, the U.S. participated in the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), which assesses literacy skills across the industrialized world. The PIAAC’s definition of literacy stipulates “understanding, evaluating, using, and engaging with written text to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” In the U.S., the tests were administered in English, and the sample (over 8,000 American adults) was large enough to analyze immigrant scores separately from those of native-born Americans. The results show a large and persistent English-literacy deficit among immigrants. Overall, immigrants score at just the 21st percentile of the distribution, and 41 percent of immigrants are “below basic”—a level sometimes described as functional illiteracy. Problems with English-language acquisition in the U.S. most often involve Hispanic immigrants, many of whom live in Spanish-speaking enclaves that slow assimilation. The average Hispanic immigrant scores at just the 8th percentile on the English literacy test, and 63 percent score below basic.
More troubling than the deficit itself is its persistence. Among immigrants who arrived more than 15 years prior to the test, the results were largely the same—43 percent scored below basic, including 67 percent of Hispanics. As for the children of immigrants, the good news is that their average score is close to the average of the general population. The bad news is that the average disguises a persistent inequality. While the children of non-Hispanic immigrants score at the 60th percentile, the children of Hispanic immigrants score at just the 34th. In other words, low English literacy is a multigenerational problem.
These results may be surprising in light of the positive news that we often hear about English acquisition. “Latino immigrants acquire English as quickly as, or more quickly than, Asian and European immigrants,” wrote Dylan Matthews in the Washington Post. “Fully 89 percent of U.S.-born Latinos spoke English proficiently in 2013,” according to a Pew Hispanic Center report. These numbers are based not on an objective test of literacy, but rather on a Census question that asks, simply, “How well do [you] speak English?” Researchers then assume that anyone who answers “very well” (or speaks only English at home) is proficient. Unfortunately, the PIAAC data show that Hispanic immigrants who say that they speak English “very well” score at just the 33rd percentile on the literacy test—about the same as U.S.-born Hispanics score, despite their “proficiency,” as defined by Pew.
Low English literacy among immigrants is not inevitable but instead a direct result of public policy. During the past half-century of mass immigration, the United States has not imposed any preconditions of English proficiency for receiving temporary or permanent visas. Looking to expand immigration even further, advocates often deflect this criticism by promoting toothless English requirements. For example, when President Obama announced the DACA program—which provides deportation relief and work permits for illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. before age 16—he characterized beneficiaries as English speakers who might not even know the language of their ancestral countries. But DACA has no English requirement; the application form even has a space for the name of the translator who helped non-English speakers complete it. Similarly, supporters of the 2013 Schumer-Rubio immigration bill claimed that illegals must learn English before getting a green card; in truth, they were required only to sign up for a class. The bill did include an honest-to-goodness English test for certain high-skill immigrants, but its main focus was on expanding low-skill immigration.
Naturalization—the process of moving from permanent residency to citizenship—should come with strict English requirements. But even those who, unlike Mendez, have to take the test in English need only read and write one out of three English sentences more or less correctly—applicants still pass even if they omit parts of the sentences “that do not interfere with meaning.” Not surprisingly, millions of immigrants continue to struggle with English long after becoming citizens. Based on the PIAAC data, we estimate that one out of three naturalized citizens has “below-basic” literacy skills, including nearly half of Hispanics.
Some lawmakers are taking note. Though not addressing the naturalization requirements specifically, the RAISE Act, sponsored by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue, recognizes the importance of English by giving immigration preference to those who can speak the language. The RAISE Act limits the family relationships that generate special immigration rights to spouses and children, thus phasing out the current categories for adult siblings and adult sons and daughters of earlier immigrants. Over time, the RAISE Act would reduce the annual flow of new immigrants by several hundred thousand from the current level of 1 million per year—not only slowing the growth of the population needing to learn English but also encouraging English adoption by making it less practical to live in a parallel, non-English-speaking environment, as Jovita Mendez appears to have done.
Our expectations of English-language mastery should not be unrealistic. Even if the RAISE Act reforms are enacted, most new immigrants will still be ordinary working people, not scientists or lawyers. But improving immigrant mastery of English so that it’s realistic to expect, say, a middle-school level of English for citizenship would be a significant improvement over the existing system. Until Americans start taking immigrant English acquisition seriously, we shouldn’t expect newcomers to our country to do so.
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