CNN’s Jim Acosta had several regrettable moments yesterday while debating White House adviser Stephen Miller on the new Cotton-Perdue immigration bill. Acosta’s smug disbelief in the actual history of the Statue of Liberty — it was not originally an immigration symbol — and his scurrilous accusation that favoring English-proficient immigrants is “trying to engineer the racial and ethnic flow” have already been covered elsewhere. I’ll focus on a third moment: “Can’t people learn how to speak English when they get here?” Acosta asked, repeatedly pressing the question.
The simple answer is that many do not. In a recent report for the Center for Immigration Studies, I showed that immigrants who first arrived more than 15 years ago scored at the 20th percentile on a formal test of English literacy skills, and 43 percent were “below basic” — a level that is sometimes described as functional illiteracy. The picture is worse for Hispanic immigrants, of whom 67 percent are still below basic after arriving more than 15 years ago.
Of course, some non-English-speaking immigrants (especially children) do become fluent in English while living in the United States. On average, however, immigrants have struggled with English literacy despite a long tenure here. The Cotton-Perdue bill’s emphasis on English ability is not a solution in search of a problem, as Acosta implied. On the contrary, it could lead to a significant long-term improvement in immigrant English skills.