The PJ Tatler

Another Immigration Hurdle: Learning English

Besides the pathway to citizenship, which will be a tough sell for House Republicans, another problem has presented itself: learning English.  Both sides agree that learning English should be mandatory for the eleven million illegals when they apply for their green cards – or permanent legal status.  The problem is that the current – and underfunded – ESL program isn’t equipped to handle the volume that will be necessary in meeting this goal.

According to Liz Goodwin of Yahoo! News:

The current ESL system is “cobbled together with toothpicks and Band-Aids,” said Paul Musselman, the president of Carnegie Speech, a virtual learning company that makes language software.

It would be “insane” to require illegal immigrants to learn English, added Leslie Robbins, the executive director of Riverside Language Program in Manhattan, which teaches legal immigrants intensive English courses. For one, she noted, the system is already overloaded. “There’s not enough funding currently to deal with the numbers of people who both need and want English-language instruction,” she said.

And Margie McHugh, an expert on immigrant integration issues at the Migration Policy Institute think tank, noted that “the idea that somehow the system could accommodate 11 million new people is beyond anyone’s imagination.”

McHugh estimated that, without schooling, about 55 percent of undocumented immigrants wouldn’t be able to pass the English portion of the U.S. citizenship test—which requires someone to understand English phrases when spoken to slowly and with repetition—if it were given today. That means about 4 million to 5 million people could simultaneously need instruction under the immigration reform law.

Politicians want to add a stricter English requirement in the reform bill in part to make sure undocumented immigrants are integrating and able to succeed economically. Immigrants who speak English well earn on average between 10 and 24 percent more than immigrants who don’t, according to several studies, which means providing effective English courses could have a huge economic impact for the country as a whole and immigrants themselves. (Legal immigrants to the U.S. are not required to learn English to gain a green card, but must pass an English test in order to become citizens.)


States may end up shouldering hefty costs associated with immigration reform if lawmakers don’t explicitly reimburse them in a bill. In 1986, Congress promised to reimburse state and local governments $4 billion in costs associated with the amnesty program, including providing adult ESL classes.

But even if the money’s there, existing ESL classes on average have not proven to be all that effective at teaching its students English, in part because many immigrants don’t have the time to attend classes frequently enough to make a difference.

So, do we dumb down the standards? Do we issue bilingual citizenship tests?  If that’s the route we’re going to take, conservatives should block the bill.  The waiting period for current illegals to apply for citizenship will be eight yearsthirteen years max – and they’ll be put at the back of the line behind legal applicants already in the process.  I can live with that – and it gives Congress plenty of time to reform, rebuild, or remodel the ESL program.  Given that they have a decade to learn our language, there’s little for excuse for illegals to not be almost proficient in English by the time they apply for citizenship/ permanent legal status.