Report adds currency to America’s historic immigration story

Published 10:58 am Monday, October 6, 2014

By David Fondler

St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL —A recent report from the Brookings Institution seeks to quantify and tackle the challenges faced by people in America who don’t know English.

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Among the findings: Almost 10 percent of the people in the U.S., or about 19 million, have limited English proficiency; this group earns 25 to 40 percent less than their English-proficient counterparts; most reside in large metropolitan areas, although many are migrating to smaller towns, and this migration is putting a strain on educational and other institutions in those towns.

The predominant language other than English in the U.S. is Spanish, although that varies by region: In the Twin Cities, the combined portion of the population speaking Asian or African languages outnumbers the percentage of Spanish speakers.

Many of the findings were not surprising. But some were. Most of the folks who aren’t proficient in English are in the labor force, and in 19 of the 89 metro areas studied, 70 percent of this population is employed. Of this group, those with less than a high school education are more likely to have a job than their English-speaking counterparts.

“Immigrants coming here, especially those with low levels of education, are coming here for the purpose of working, earning money, sometimes sending it back home, or supporting their families,” said report author Jill Wilson, a senior research analyst and associate fellow at Brookings in Washington, D.C.

In a recent interview, Wilson discussed several facets of the report’s findings.

Her answers have been edited for context and clarity:

Q: What is the most important thing people need to take away from this report?

A: “I’d like people to understand the size and scope and urgency of this issue, realizing there are over 19 million adults of working age who lack English proficiency, and the fact that they make up more than one in 10 of our working age population. In terms of the urgency, if you consider the fact that virtually all of the growth in our labor force in the coming decade will come from immigrants and their children, this is a population that we cannot ignore.”

Q: So your proposal is that we start teaching them English better?

A: “That’s right. Many immigrants and others who lack proficiency in English are either underemployed or there are obstacles to their moving up in their career path because of their lack of proficiency in English. This leads to a loss of productivity, which leads to lower tax revenues and lower consumer spending for local areas.”

Q: How do we go about doing this?

A: “There are a number of strategies that are being implemented in different places around the country, including in the Twin Cities, to address this need. One thing that’s important to remember is that places differ in terms of the characteristics of this population, so it’s important first to get a handle on the population in your area, and this report does that by providing data for the 89 metropolitan areas.

A: “In terms of the approaches to addressing it, those can come from a number of sectors, both public and private, in terms of increasing funding, but also then tailoring the investment to the particular characteristics of the local population.”

Q: Do you come to any conclusions on how much this would cost, either on a city-by-city basis or nationwide?

A: “No, I don’t. At the federal level, we can measure it in terms of the amount of funding that’s being provided through the Workforce Investment Act, and that’s in the ballpark of around $700 million, but it’s very difficult to measure the other investments that are being made because there’s really no integrated system by which instruction is provided. Sometimes you’ve got classes in church basements, classes in community colleges. There’s nothing integrated to allow us to measure that comprehensively.”

Q: In America, we’ve seen waves of limited-English speaking immigrants coming since the mid-1800s, assimilating through generations, and then the trend repeats. What’s different now?

A: “To some extent it is a repeat of what we’ve seen in the past, different waves of immigrants coming in, but the wave we’ve seen in the past couple of decades has been larger than before. And while it’s true immigrants do learn English over time, and their children in particular learn English, the globalization we’ve seen in recent years and the desire to have the U.S. remain competitive means that there’s some urgency to addressing this and not just waiting for the next generation to learn English.

“Employers are increasingly requesting employees who have higher skills, and so English proficiency is one of the main ways to open doors to economic opportunity for immigrants; this is an important intervention that can be addressed in order to help improve and build our skilled labor force in this country.”

Q: Your report notes the high employment levels among limited-English immigrants in jobs such as cleaning services, factory work, food services including slaughterhouses. Doesn’t this speak to demand among employers for workers willing to do these lower-skilled jobs?

A: “Overall, there’s a trend among employers looking for higher skilled workers. Even among jobs that we consider low skill, and given the fact that there are over 19 million people who lack English proficiency, it’s not likely that every one of them is going to become fluent and move up the career ladder. In addition, I think we can all agree that besides the impact it has on one’s economic mobility, knowing English is just good for society, for social cohesiveness, for safety, for being able to participate civically in this country.”

Q: What about the idea of making English the “official language” of the U.S., implying limited access to non-English official documents, signage, etc.? What are your thoughts on that?

A: “I really don’t think it serves the interest of our country. We want everyone to learn English and certainly want everyone to want to learn English. But we all understand that it’s not a quick or an easy thing. Most of us at some point in our education were required to take a foreign language, and most of us did not become proficient in that. And that was when we were in school and not working one or two jobs, having child-care responsibilities, so you can imagine the difficulties of learning English as an adult.

A: “And so these efforts to provide translations are really helpful for people as they’re learning English, to be able to get access to the services that are available to be able to participate on their children’s schools … and so I think they are really helpful and are not hindering to those who are trying to learn English.”

Q: What trends in the report are specific to the Twin Cities area or Minnesota?

A: “One thing that stands out in Minneapolis-St. Paul is the diversity of the languages spoken, the Hmong and Somali and other groups, and Spanish is really a smaller share, only about 40 percent, and in the U.S. it’s 67 percent. So a smaller share of Spanish and a more diverse group of languages. And that lends itself to a little more difficulty in some cases because there are multiple languages to deal with in terms of outreach.”

To access the Brookings report online, go to:

—Distributed by MCT Information Services