By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
Spending on English instruction must be quadrupled to more than $4 billion a year for the next six years to make legal and illegal adult immigrants proficient in skills crucial to their assimilation and the economic future of a country whose population is increasingly foreign-born, a new national report says.
In the first nationwide study of its kind, the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute estimates that an additional $200 million a year is needed to improve legal immigrants' English skills enough for them to pass a citizenship test and "fully participate in the country's civic life." An additional $2.9 billion a year is required for illegal immigrants to meet those standards, the report says.
Federal and state governments currently spend about $1 billion a year on English as a Second Language instruction for adults, most of which comes from the states.
The report calls English acquisition by immigrants the "most important integration challenge" facing the country. English proficiency among immigrants is linked to higher earnings and tax contributions, lower welfare dependency and greater educational and economic advancement in the second generation, the study notes. Given global economic competition and the stagnant growth of the native-born labor force, spending on English instruction should be seen as an investment, the authors argue.
"It's not just a cost," said Margie McHugh, a researcher at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute and one of the study's authors. "There are returns on this investment."
As immigrants' share of the population grows, efforts to help them learn English are not keeping pace, the report says. It cites U.S. Census Bureau data indicating that the population with limited English grew from 14 million in 1990 to more than 23 million in 2005. But waiting lists are long for English classes, and quality varies by state.
Demand for English training would probably skyrocket under any plan to legalize the nation's 12 million unauthorized immigrants, the report says, noting that most recent proposals would require illegal immigrants to demonstrate strong English skills to gain legal status.
Under this year's failed Senate bill, most would have had to pass the citizenship test to renew provisional legal status or gain permanent residency.
The need for instruction would represent "an incredible transformative shock to the whole ESL training community," said Michael Fix, another of the study's authors and vice president of the Migration Policy Institute.
Even in the absence of broad legalization, the report says, other reforms are likely to boost demand. A proposed new citizenship exam, for example, would test English skills and stress concepts over facts, requiring immigrants to understand the meaning of "We the people," among other phrases and terms.
The study's findings are based on current population estimates; it does not account for future immigration.
Using census data, it concludes that 5.8 million permanent residents with limited English would need 277 million hours of English instruction a year during the next six years to pass the citizenship test and participate in civic life. An additional 6.4 million illegal immigrants would need 319 million hours a year for six years.
The authors assume that instruction would cost $10 an hour and that about half of the legal immigrants would not seek instruction and others would require distance-learning or technology-based programs.
Funding could come from student fees, greater payments by states, employer donations and illegal immigrants' Social Security contributions, the report says.
The report estimates that the Social Security Administration holds about $30 billion contributed by illegal immigrants, who are not eligible for benefits.
Discussions about educating immigrants should "move from benevolence to business," said Brigitte Marshall, director of the Oakland (Calif.) Adult Education Program, who spoke at the presentation of the report yesterday. "It makes good economic sense."