Immigrant Integration and Language Diversity

image via SF Chronicle

Many predict that if and when comprehensive immigration reform is enacted, it will require immigrants to learn English as a requisite for citizenship.  Our nation’s legislators want concrete markers of immigrant integration such as English language skills, proof of employment, and access to health care.  It is a good time to ask what our communities look like and what more meaningful immigrant integration can be.

Here in California, immigrant integration and language diversity are particularly important for a state with 10 million immigrants–that is more immigrants than any other state.  Nearly 7 million of California’s immigrants have limited English proficiency and face real barriers to critical services and civic participation.

If English language skills are to be the new marker of immigrant integration, those efforts are misguided and will only prove to be exclusionary.

While English skills undoubtedly ease the integration of immigrants, a higher English language requirement for immigration eligibility will exclude millions of immigrants who wish to learn, but simply cannot.  Low-income newcomer immigrants have few resources and opportunities for English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) classes.  At CAA, we see first-hand how our newcomer clients struggle to not only gain access to ESL classes (some classes have waiting lists lasting for months), but to actually develop proficiency.  Most immigrants consider ESL classes to be a luxury they cannot afford with competing demands to work and care for their families.

Additionally, with current cuts to many adult learning programs, it is unlikely that the supply of accessible ESL classes will be able to keep up with the demand, and the demand is growing.  The United States has seen a dramatic shift in demographics and with it, the population of limited English proficient people has increased by 80% in 20 years (from 1990 to 2010).

If we are to have meaningful immigrant integration in the U.S., we must look beyond English language skills.  Though other markers may be less concrete or quantifiable than an ESL class level, immigrant integration must consider “soft” variables that more accurately depict the way new immigrants and a receiving community work together to attain equity and full civic participation.

The University of Southern California’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII) recently issued an immigrant integration scorecard, using what they believe to be more realistic, qualitative metrics such as “improved economic mobility,” “receiving society openness,” and “enhanced civic participation.”  The scorecard studied California regions and looked at factors including: the reach of immigrant-serving nonprofit organizations, positive messaging about immigrant communities, housing and employment opportunities for immigrants, and language access.  In regions where language diversity is considered an asset and not a deficit, immigrant integration efforts have been more successful.

The scorecard from CSII makes one thing clear: immigrant integration efforts are changing, but with growing hostile and anti-immigrant sentiment, these efforts have a long way to go.  Immigrant integration policies must adapt to the new reality of a growing immigrant population in America.  Language diversity should be valued as a constitutive part of new immigrant communities and should not be used to exclude immigrants from a society of which they are trying to become a part.