Learning English should be part of American experience

Fiorina: English is official language of U.S.
Fiorina: English is official language of U.S.


    Fiorina: English is official language of U.S.


Fiorina: English is official language of U.S. 02:30

Story highlights

  • Sean Kennedy: Immigrants need support to acquire proficiency in English
  • Promotion of learning English should be seen as a unifying force, he says

Sean Kennedy is a writer based in Washington. Previously, he was a U.S. Senate aide, television producer and a fellow at public policy think tanks. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio's family immigration story was one of the most inspiring from Wednesday night's debate. But the senator from Florida was dead wrong on one count: Learning English shouldn't be an option for new immigrants -- it should be enshrined in the experience of making them Americans.

All the talk in elite circles is about "fixing a broken immigration system," even as the groundswell of popular support for Donald Trump rejects that approach out of hand. It's the not the system, but the lawbreakers who are the problem, they say.
    Sean Kennedy
    But both sides miss the point entirely. Beyond the clichéd truism that the United States is a nation of immigrants, few are asking, "What makes an American?" and "Who should be one?"
    On a U.S.-bound vessel, the father of Hungarian immigrant Peter Schramm put it succinctly when asked why the family chose America: "Because, son, we were born Americans, but in the wrong place."
    That ethos -- that America is a beacon to those seeking out our values, our culture and our language as their own -- is what should drive U.S. immigration policy. And, most importantly, it should drive how we assimilate immigrants -- it is forging new Americans that should concern policymakers and political leaders, first and foremost.
    That's where English comes in. Sadly, though, that's one front on which we are failing miserably.
    According to the Census Bureau, nearly 5 million native-born Americans have limited English proficiency, and another 20 million foreign-born U.S. residents (nearly half of all immigrants to the United States) can't speak English "very well."
    Worse yet, for those who do try to learn our unifying language, the available resources are wholly inadequate. According to Department of Education statistics, only 42% of adult English language learners improved their English skill level after a yearlong program in 2011.
    That's a travesty. For them and for America.
    Spanish-speaking immigrants earn on average $3,000 less than their English-speaking counterparts, according to a 2012 study by the Lexington Institute. That means the loss of real income for immigrant families and the economic marginalization of workers into industries that do not require writing or speaking proficiency in English.
    Moreover, it threatens social cohesion as immigrants become socially isolated from the mainstream and resentment boils up that an influx of non-English-speaking people is upending traditional American customs. The ties that bind the "little platoons" of society together grow frayed and break in ugly ways.
    The veiled racism and xenophobia that so many decry in Trump's comments about "anchor babies" and "rapists and murderers" pouring over our borders cannot be totally eliminated overnight. And while such views certainly can be reduced, doing so will only happen if politicians stop pretending Trump's immigration appeal is superficial and shortsighted, and stop ignoring the deep emotional resonance that many Americans feel about "losing" their country to unchecked flows of foreigners.
    The most productive way to counter such sentiments is to make a serious effort to help immigrants assimilate through school and work. This country has had a welcoming, if conflicted, attitude toward aspiring Americans for most of its history. Let's make helping those who wish to become Americans our top priority.
    English is the fastest path to that goal, but there's no requirement presently that immigrants learn English to become citizens or legal residents. Even the infamous Gang of Eight bill -- which Rubio first championed, then denounced -- set forth an English language and civics requirement for a path to citizenship. But that, like the whole bill, never came to pass.
    Clearly, more must be done. Immigrants need support and effective learning tools to acquire English proficiency, and the government needs to stop sending mixed messages about English. With that in mind, English should be made the official language and taught exclusively in schools as the language of instruction. For adults, more effective and efficient programs -- such as the adult charter school movement -- should be established to ease the transition for non-native English speakers.
    Rubio told the audience his grandfather praised Ronald Reagan in Spanish. But Reagan was clear when he wrote in 1987, "By emphasizing the importance of a common language, we safeguard a proud legacy and help to ensure that America's future will be as great as her past."
    We may not come to a consensus about what to do about illegal immigration anytime soon, but we can certainly rally around a policy promoting English as a unifying force -- and a way to assimilate the 40 million-plus immigrants who call America home.