To Live a Fruitful American Life, Immigrants Must Learn English

Published on July 8th, 2013

By Joe Guzzardi
July 8, 2013

Somewhere buried deep in the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, S.744, is a provision that to earn legal status illegal immigrants must be registered in an English class.

At first blush, this may sound encouraging. The bill’s supporters point to the English requirement as an indication that illegal immigrants are eager to assimilate and to eventually become part of the American fabric.

But registering in an English class and attaining even basic conversational skills are vastly different. I speak from experiences; in 1986 during the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), I taught English as a Second language in a California public school mostly to Mexican migrant workers. One of their green card conditions was that they had to spend 40 classroom hours learning English.

Hundreds of pupils enrolled; few learned. To begin with, acquiring foreign language skills is challenging. Forty hours is not enough time to even learn English fundamentals. In the case of my students, most had little formal education. Classroom surroundings were new and intimidating to them. Their learning task became more daunting because the 40-hour requirement did not mandate that they be consecutive. My class met four times a week, four hours each session. But a student could come for an hour on Monday and another hour on Thursday. As long as he eventually compiled 40 hours, he satisfied his green card obligation. He didn’t, however, learn English.

Some students didn’t come at all. They petitioned the then-Immigration and Naturalization Services to waive the English requirement. Students cited lack of transportation, childcare conflicts or health issues. In many cases, these were valid reasons. Too often, they were not.

Once requested, a federal government waiver was virtually automatic. Then as now, the government’s mission was to expedite approvals and facilitate the legalization process. When a student had completed 40 hours, I was required to given them a brief, informal oral examination to test their verbal skills. If they passed, I signed an INS form attesting to my students’ proficiency. For those who couldn’t answer straightforward, basic questions, I didn’t sign. Then, a day or two later, I got phone calls from INS urging me to sign.

Today, now that I know more about how the immigration system works, I suspect my students appealed to one of the advocacy groups who, in turn, called the INS to intercede on their behalf. Whatever may or may not have happened behind the scenes, the ultimate outcome was that my students didn’t learn English.

The government’s willingness to smooth over the rough patches for immigrants could be construed as a good thing. After all, immigrants are understandably overwhelmed by Washington D.C.’s bureaucratic nightmares. But it’s wrong for the government to promise that as a condition of their legal status aliens will be required to learn English when the provision will likely never be enforced.


Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow whose columns have been syndicated since 1986. Contact him at [email protected]

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