Taking air out of cries of immigrant bashers

December 10, 2007|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- Late last month came shocking - shocking - news about the ability of immigrants to assimilate: Latinos in this country do learn English. Who knew?

OK, I'm being slightly facetious, responding to just one of the strains of hysterical overreaction to illegal immigration. That complaint cites the alleged dangers of allowing large numbers of Spanish-speakers into the country, people who would tear apart the American cultural fabric andthreaten the very bulwark of Western civilization.

Those who worry about the fate of the English language can rest easy. A recent study conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center found that 88 percent of second-generation Latino immigrants described themselves as strong English speakers. That figure increased to 94 percent for the grandchildren's generation.

The survey also found that Latino immigrants are more likely to speak English very well if they are "highly educated, arrived in the United States as children or have spent many years here." Only 23 percent of first-generation Latino immigrants in the survey described themselves as highly conversant in English. (The study's authors made no distinctions between legal and illegal immigrants.)

That's hardly surprising. Anyone who has struggled in midlife to learn a foreign tongue or who has watched young children pick up a new language with ease knows well that ownership of a green card does not indicate English proficiency. Formal education, age and exposure to the language all have an influence. Children - whether their parents flew in legally from China with an HB-1 visa or crossed the Rio Grande illegally - will learn English quickly. Adults often struggle if they've never studied English, especially if they're over 40.

That's the way it's always been in immigrant families: English proficiency increases over generations. Though a romanticized recollection of history has painted a picture of legions of Italians and Poles, Germans and Portuguese who entered the United States through Ellis Island with legal documents, proceeded to English classes and quickly dropped their native tongues, that's not the way it was. Through the mid-20th century, there were countless urban neighborhoods where shopkeepers and their customers spoke Italian or Mandarin or Polish. Many American adults had grandparents who never learned English.

Unfortunately, neither common sense nor logic shows up much in the contentious, often bitter and sometimes bigoted debate over illegal immigration. Undocumented workers from south of the border have been blamed for decaying neighborhoods, a fraying social safety net and the declining fortunes of the American worker. The long and loosely guarded southern border has been blamed for terrorist attacks. And as we've been told, illegal immigrants "refuse" to speak English.

That irrational diatribe will likely continue no matter what any study shows. This nation was built on a history of immigration, but it also has a long history of immigrant-bashing. In the late 1700s, Benjamin Franklin was quite disturbed by the "swarm" of immigrants from Germany. "Why should Pennsylvania," he asked, "founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them?"

President Theodore Roosevelt proposed that "every immigrant who comes here should be required within five years to learn English or leave the country." In 1896, MIT President Francis Walker, an influential economist, warned that American citizenship could be degraded by "the tumultuous access of vast throngs of ignorant and brutalized peasantry from the countries of eastern and southern Europe."

It's too bad we've learned so little from our history. Every group of immigrants has assimilated and produced politicians, business owners, lawyers and doctors. Today's vilified immigrants will do the same.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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