Why "Make Them Learn English" Is the Key to Immigration Reform

Among the provisions in the immigration-reform proposal released by a bipartisan group of senators yesterday was a requirement that in order to get on that path to citizenship, undocumented immigrants would have to "learn English and civics." They don't detail exactly how it would happen, but presumably there'd be a test of English proficiency immigrants would have to pass, and perhaps some money appropriated for English classes. There are two things to know about this idea. First, in practical terms it's completely unnecessary. And second, in political terms it's an excellent idea. In fact, it could be the key to passing immigration reform.

The reason it's unnecessary is that every wave of immigrants follows basically the same pattern when it comes to English. People who immigrate as adults tend not to learn much beyond the most basic words and phrases, and continue to speak their native language at home. Their children grow up bilingual, speaking one language at home and another at school and eventually at work. The next generation grows up with only a little bit of the language of the old country, which they pick up from their grandparents, but they spend almost all their time speaking English. And the generation after that often knows nothing of their great-grandparents' language beyond a few colorful expressions.

That's how it has worked for one group of immigrants after another, and as Dylan Matthews reminds us, that's how it's working for the current group of immigrants. There is some variation among people who come from different places, but the basic picture is clear: you don't need to "make them learn English," because they're going to learn it anyway, or at least their children are. That's probably how it worked in your family, and it's certainly how it worked in mine. My great-grandparents, who came to America as adults, knew very little English; my grandparents, who came as children, were bilingual; my parents can follow a conversation in Yiddish but not speak it very well; and my siblings and I just know a few little Yiddish snippets. (When I was a kid my grandmother had an annoying habit of telling long, apparently hilarious stories in which just the punch line was in Yiddish, so I never knew what the hell all the older people were laughing about.)

So why is the "make them learn English" provision so politically important? Because it's the key that unlocks wide public support for immigration reform. As a group, Americans have contradictory feelings about immigration. We can't divide the country into "pro-immigrant" and "anti-immigrant" groups, even if you might be able to make such a division among politicians or talk-show hosts. Apart from a small population of hard-core nativists, most Americans acknowledge that we're all descended from immigrants of one kind or another, whether your ancestors walked across the Bering Strait land bridge, came over on a slave ship, or drove down from Toronto. They also appreciate that immigration gives our country vitality, and that immigrants are exactly the kind of hard-working, ambitious strivers that drive our economy and culture forward. But at the same time, many feel threatened when they see the character of their towns and cities change, and nothing embodies that change more than language. When people walk into a store and hear a language being spoken that they don't understand, they suddenly feel like foreigners in their own neighborhood, alienated and insecure. I'm not putting a value judgment on that feeling, but it's undeniable.

So imagine an individual citizen/voter who has those two contradictory feelings. He sincerely wants his country to welcome immigrants, and he thinks that cultural diversity is basically a good thing, but he got a little freaked out last week when he went down to the drug store and felt like he just got transported to Mexico City. He doesn't like feeling alienated, but he also doesn't like that tiny voice inside him that says "Send them back where they came from!" He knows that voice isn't right, but when he sees signs in other languages or hears other languages spoken, that voice gets a little stronger.

What the "make them learn English" provision says to him is: Don't worry, it's going to be OK. We're going to make sure that this wave of immigrants is woven into the American tapestry just like the prior waves of Irish and Italian and Chinese immigrants. They won't take America over. They'll become American.

The truth is, that'll happen whether or not we make undocumented immigrants take an English test before they can become citizens. But there's no reason not to do it. If some have to take an ESL class in order to pass, that's fine—accelerating their learning curve a little will be good for them, and the cost probably won't be too high. The real benefit, though, will be to reassure the majority of Americans whose feelings about immigration are complicated. And once you get enough of them on board, it becomes possible for risk-averse politicians to do the right thing.

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