No, It's Not Necessary to Make English the Official Language

PHOTO: Instructor Fareeha Haq teaches Pakistani immigrants during an English and U.S. citizenship class at the office of the Council of Peoples Organization (COPO), on February 6, 2013 in New York City.

John Moore/Getty Images

There's an effort underway from Republican lawmakers to strengthen the English-language requirements in the immigration reform bill. But are these measures really necessary?

The Senate's immigration bill takes the unprecedented step of making immigrants learn English before they can obtain permanent residency, something that's currently required for only those seeking citizenship.

And an amendment proposed by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) strengthens that by making immigrants prove they are proficient in English instead of simply signing up for a course, as is currently outlined in the bill.

Some Republicans want to take the English-language requirements even further. Sen. Jim Inhofe (Okla.) has proposed amendments to the Gang of Eight bill that would make English the official language of the United States and would protect employers with English-only policies from lawsuits.

Regardless of where they stand on the individual amendments, members in both parties say that learning English is crucial to assimilating into American culture.

"I just truly believe that as part of any successful immigration reform, you have to have assimilation," Rubio said in a speech this week. "And one of the quickest ways for people to assimilate into our culture and into our society is to speak the unifying language of our country, which is English."

Skeptics of comprehensive immigration reform argue that one of the reasons Americans should be wary of legalizing as many as 11 million new immigrants is that today's mostly-Latino immigrant population has had a more difficult time assimilating than past waves of immigrants.

But several studies show that isn't the case.

The Washington Post touched on this subject back in January. In the piece, author Dylan Matthews cited a 2007 study by political scientist Jack Citrin and others that showed Latino immigrants don't lag behind Asian and European immigrants when it comes to English language adoption.

In 1980, there was a gap between Mexican immigrants and other Latino, Asian, and European immigrants. But by 2000, the gap has mostly closed. First-generation Mexican immigrants still have lower rates of English proficiency than the others, but by the second generation, that deficit disappears.

A Pew Research Center report expands on the progress that's typically made by second-generation Americans, the children of immigrants. It shows that, when it comes to assimilating, Latino immigrants are on par with Asian immigrants, who are considered America's "model minority."

Thirty-three percent of first-generation Hispanic immigrants and 30 percent of Asian first-generation immigrants say they feel like typical Americans. By the second generation, 61 percent of both Hispanic and Asians say they feel like typical Americans. Like other immigrant groups, second-generation Latinos show major progress when it comes to educational attainment and household income.

And most importantly, the study shows that Hispanic immigrant families pick up English just as fast as other groups. Less than half (48 percent) of first-generation Hispanic immigrants are proficient in English, a lower rate than Asian immigrants. But by the second generation, that percentage jumps to 93 percent among Latinos. And they can be fluent in English while still retaining their Spanish; 80 percent of second-generation Hispanics say they can speak Spanish very well or pretty well.

If immigration reform passes, legalized immigrants will undoubtedly face challenges. Hardly anyone disputes that learning English is critical for immigrants to integrate into American society. But immigrants don't need to be told to learn English, they're already doing it. In fact, it would be great if all Americans followed the example of immigrants and learned a second language. It might all of us some good.

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Viewing America’s population through the lens of diversity, we will cover the social, cultural and political impact of various racial and ethnic groups in this country.

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