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Report: 63% of Hispanic immigrants functionally illiterate in English

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According to a new report published by the Center for Immigration Studies, 41 percent of immigrants coming into the United States score at or below the lowest level of English literacy, a level described as “below basic” or “functional illiteracy.”

Hispanic immigrants struggle more than any other immigrant group, with 63 percent of them scoring “below basic” in a test of English literacy. By contrast, only 23 percent of non-Hispanic immigrants score “below basic.”

Meanwhile, 23 percent of native-born Hispanics are functionally illiterate, as are 15 percent of all native-born Americans.

Only 7 percent of immigrants, and 1 percent of Hispanic immigrants, scored at an “elite” level on an English literacy test, whereas 14 percent of native-born Americans scored “elite.”

Jason Richwine, the independent public policy analyst who authored the report, said Hispanic immigrants in particular likely suffer from an ever-more accommodating American culture.

“The big problem, especially regarding Hispanic immigrants, is that there are so many other people speaking Spanish that they can live basically their entire regular lives at work, at home, in the media they consume – it can all be in Spanish,” Richwine told WND. “And so when you even further accommodate that, when they have to deal with the government or they have to deal with a business, they go to Home Depot because they need something, they see that all the signs at those kinds of places are also in Spanish — that can only further discourage people from learning English.”

One might expect immigrants to be more proficient in English if they have been in America longer, but that does not appear to be the case. Among immigrants who first arrived in the U.S. more than 15 years ago, 43 percent are functionally illiterate, as are 67 percent of Hispanic immigrants who first arrived more than 15 years ago.

It’s part of an issue President Trump addressed this week, when he emphasized self-sufficiency for newcomers. In fact, he said immigrants should be banned from accessing public assistance within five years of entering the U.S.

Richwine said it could be that newer immigrants are more skilled when they arrive than were previous waves, “but the point is that even immigrants who have been here for more than 15 years still have rather low literacy scores, which indicates that they are not becoming fluent the way we might expect them to.”

The situation gets better for the U.S.-born children of immigrants. Among second-generation immigrants, only 15 percent are functionally illiterate in English, matching the level among all U.S.-born people with two U.S.-born parents. However, Hispanics still lag behind in this regard. Twenty-two percent of second-generation Hispanics are functionally illiterate, as are 24 percent of U.S.-born Hispanics with two U.S.-born parents.

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CIS got its data from the results of a direct test of English literacy administered by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. According to Richwine, the PIAAC is much more reliable than the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which simply asks those who speak a foreign language at home how well they speak English and gives them four choices: very well, well, not well or not at all. Therefore, the ACS is limited in what it can reveal.

“Depending on context, speaking English ‘well’ might mean anything from basic comprehension to near fluency,” Richwine wrote in his report. “Moreover, speech is only one aspect of English ability. The ACS has no data on reading and writing skills, which are the traditional foundations of literacy.”

Richwine found that Hispanic immigrants’ self-reported English-speaking ability overstates their actual literacy levels. Forty-four percent of Hispanic immigrants who said they speak English “very well or well” nevertheless scored “below basic” on their PIAAC literacy test. In contrast, only 20 percent of non-Hispanic immigrants and 14 percent of native-born Americans overrated their abilities in this regard.

Richwine said his report shows Census Bureau data hides the English literacy problem in the immigrant community.

“It communicates that language assimilation, at least, is not happening as fast as some of the Census Bureau data would suggest it does,” he said. “A lot of people look at that data and they say, ‘There’s really no problem here because once you get to the second generation, 80 or 90 percent of people are saying they speak English very well or they speak only English at home, and so there’s really no problem.’ But what this literacy test data indicates is that for Hispanic immigrants in particular, their self-assessment of their English language ability is really an overestimate of their actual ability.”

Richwine told WND one solution to the immigrant English literacy problem would be to cut back on immigration – if the flow of foreign-language speakers into the U.S. is slowed down, ethnic enclaves may not last as long and immigrants will face greater pressure to assimilate.

He said he would also like to see the U.S. pursue a much more vigorous policy of English language promotion.

“It would mean declaring English as the official language of the United States,” Richwine said. “It would mean getting rid of the rule about having to have ballot papers in different languages if there’s a certain percentage of foreign speakers in that area. It would involve politicians not pandering to Spanish speakers by giving Spanish-language speeches.

“We need politicians to say, ‘You know what, people can speak whatever language they want in their homes, but in terms of the civic language in the United States, the language in which we do business is English, and we’re not going to give speeches in Spanish, we’re not going to put out campaign materials in Spanish, because this is a country where we communicate politically in English.’”

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