Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Rethinking the English Literacy Requirement for Naturalization

Guest blogger: Alexina Del Vecchio, first-year law student, University of San Francisco

American policy makers on both sides of the aisle have long supported some form of a language requirement for naturalization, noting that English is an important symbol of integration into our society, and it is beneficial to both our nation and the immigrant to be able to communicate in the dominate language. While the purported intention of the requirement is inclusive and practical, the actual result of the requirement is not to facilitate the success of naturalized immigrants, but rather to create a political, expensive, and ineffective hurdle that discourages naturalization and creates an underclass of excluded legal permanent residents. The English language requirement, or at a minimum, the literacy requirement, ought to be removed from the naturalization exam, and replaced by a comprehensive program of classes and resources to assist new Americans in learning the language and integrating into American life – an affirmative inclusive solution rather than a negative exclusive approach.

Requiring literacy in English inherently favors immigrants of privileged socio-economic backgrounds. First, it is extraordinarily difficult to become literate in English as a second language if one is not literate or has a low reading level in his or her first language. Additionally, learning English is particularly difficult for immigrants whose first language is written in a different alphabet. Furthermore, it is well documented that an individual’s ability to learn a language decreases significantly with age. Of course, it is likely that immigrants of financial means or higher levels of education will know English, and if not, will easily have access to resources to help them learn English. Moreover, immigrants of greater financial stability will have more leisure time to attend English classes and learn the language, whereas poor immigrants oftentimes simply do not have the time and luxury to spend in the classroom. Free English classes are also horribly underfunded and scarce, and most are so overburdened they have waiting lists. All of these facts point to the undebatable reality that requiring literacy in English inherently favors Anglo-Saxon, upper class, educated immigrants and discriminates against older, poorer, undereducated, non-white and non-European immigrants.

The increase in Spanish speaking immigrants to the United State in the second half of the twentieth century saw an increase in bilingual education in the United States, but simultaneously brought attempts to use English as an instrument of exclusion. Legislators increasingly feel threatened by a growing population of Spanish speakers in the United States. In 2013, Senator Marco Rubio attempted to inject a requirement into the debated bi-partisan immigration reform legislation that would bolster the English language requirement such that even applicants for legal permanent residency would have been required to demonstrate proficiency in English. The amendment was largely viewed by both parties as political posturing, and overwhelmingly rejected by Rubio’s own constituents in Florida.

Many studies have shown that the English language requirement is a major deterrent to otherwise eligible legal permanent residents.  About forty percent of the population of legal permanent residents in the United States who are currently eligible for naturalization self-report that they speak no or little English.  In 2013, only 8.9 percent of the eligible 8.8 million legal permanent residents began the process of applying for naturalization.  These figures reveal a significant portion of residents living in the United States who are disenfranchised by the education requirement. Although individuals may be content not to naturalize, it is surely problematic for our nation as a whole that in a democratic society there is such a large population without a vote.

Of course, it is troubling that so many people living in the United States are not proficient in English. This is not, however, because American culture is somehow eroded by people speaking other languages, or because speaking, reading, and writing English is somehow a key characteristic of American identity. Rather, it is concerning for those living within our borders, because to some degree, the ability to communicate and express oneself in English is necessary to facilitate full participation in American politics and economy.  Not surprisingly, a 2014 study by the Brookings Institution found that English proficiency was correlated to higher wage earnings at all education levels.

 The fact is, that while not all immigrants learn English, the data clearly show that their children overwhelmingly do.  Linguistic studies have shown in the United States a “rapid process of intergenerational ‘Anglicanization’ that is effectively completed by the third generation.” (Skific) Attempts to make English the national language, or to mandate the language for applicants for citizenship, do not appear to have a substantial positive effect on older immigrants learning the language.  The Brookings Institute study alternatively recommended increasing funding in adult education instruction which would “enhance the human capital of immigrants that could lead to more productive work and better outcomes for their children.”  Encouraging and facilitating the education of new or soon-to-be Americans would more effectively bring them into our communities and help them participate in all aspects of American life, from economics to politics.

 The way to go about increasing English language competency amongst new Americans is not a mandate that simply excludes and discriminates based on education, economics, and country of origin, but rather to provide greater access to resources for those in our communities seeking to improve their own lives and also to strengthen our country and our economy with their contributions. Increasing English proficiency of naturalization applicants is certainly important for both immigrants as well as for the unity of the United States. The truth is, however, that using the requirement as a litmus test for citizenship does not create an effective incentive or reasonably attainable goal for many legal permanent residents to learn the language. Instead, it results in growing numbers of disenfranchised residents living in our midst, unable to voice their opinions and exercise the rights of citizenship, waiting to qualify for a waiver, or simply leaving citizenship to their U.S.-born children. It does not make our country stronger to maintain an underclass of disenfranchised residents who are kept from participating in our democracy and other institutions. In fact, this further segregates our society and isolates non-English speaking residents to their own communities, where they will not, and need not, learn English.









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