Immigration: When English Isn’t The Native Language, Difficulties Arise

Viral incidents of people berating others for not speaking English have gripped the internet. In one case, a New Jersey teacher insisted students “speak American.” In another, a New York lawyer threatened to call Immigration and Custom Enforcement officers after hearing employees and customers speaking Spanish at a lunch spot.

“It’s America,” he cried.

For immigrants, not speaking English can have implications besides dealing with ignorance. Their employment and education opportunities may be hindered.

What the impact is

According to the Philadelphia’s Immigrants report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, speaking no English or even foreign-accented English can be tied to lower income, limited housing options and difficulty accessing adequate health care.

Integration of Immigrants into American Society, a report by the National Academies Press, stated that uneducated and low-skilled immigrants face more barriers to English proficiency, creating a cycle of not having the resources to learn English and suffering from it.

There has also been a widespread decrease in funding for English language learning programs, the report stated. In a 2017 report, NPR found non-English speakers are often concentrated in low-performing public schools with teacher shortages. These students also had lower graduation rates than the average population in every state but one — West Virginia.  

Most of the 3.8 million students studied in NPR’s report were native-born and U.S. citizens. Still, the amount of English language learners in Pennsylvania increased by 69 percent between the 2002-03 and 2012-13 school years.

Lack of English proficiency can trap immigrants in labor-intensive job fields that have little room for promotions and income raises. According to Pew, the top three industries in 2014 for unauthorized immigrants, who are more likely to struggle with English, were farming, construction and production. For that year, these immigrants made up only 5 percent of the total workforce but 26 percent of America’s farmworkers.

Conversely, according to Pew’s Philadelphia’s Immigrants report, not having higher-level education is tied to immigrants creating their own businesses at higher rates. Without formal credentials to propel immigrants toward existing jobs, they’ll create their own.

Who this impacts in Philadelphia

The same report notes there were no proficient English speakers older than 14 in a third of immigrant households in the city in 2016. This statistic has increased by 56 percent since 2000.

Total, there were about 68,000 Philadelphia residents with limited English skills. Foreign-born people who speak Spanish and East Asian languages are more likely to struggle than those fluent in European and Middle Eastern languages.

Of the residents who speak a foreign language at home, 48 percent reported that they speak English “well” or “very well,” and 30 percent said they spoke it “not well” or “not at all.”   

Resources in Philadelphia

The city and Philadelphia-based organizations offer several resources for nonnative English speakers:

-Text by Grace Shallow, image by Dylan Long.

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