The mistake in ‘The Democrats’ Immigration Mistake’

A letter to the editor of the Atlantic, submitted 19 July 2017.

The article by Peter Beinart in the July / August issue, “The Democrats’ Immigration Mistake,” contains a significant error that results in a misleading characterization of migrants’ capacities to learn English.

Beinart cites a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report – without offering the title – to claim that “newer immigrants are learning English more slowly than their predecessors did.” He draws a connection to research by sociology professor Ariela Schachter establishing “greater affinity” between native-born whites and immigrants fluent in English.

In fact, in the 2015 National Academies study Integration of Immigrants into American Society, its authors come to the opposite conclusion. “The data on English proficiency indicate,” the authors write, “that today’s immigrants are actually learning English faster than their predecessors” (p. 313).

Clearly, pronounced differences exist depending on where immigrants live, country of origin, and levels of education. There are shortfalls in English-language instruction for school-age and adult learners.

Based on an inaccurate reading of the evidence, Beinart’s suggestion that “Democrats should put immigrants’ learning English at the center of their immigration agenda” is likely misguided. More concerning, though, is the implicit conclusion that migrants must work to make themselves more acceptable to those who cannot tolerate ethnic or linguistic difference.

A more sensible strategy would be to address the fear, economic marginalization, and segregation afflicting migrant communities that (1) make meaningful personal interactions and, thus, learning English more challenging; and that (2) feed a cycle in which it becomes less likely that natives and non-natives, isolated on islands of mutual misunderstanding, will achieve a hoped-for solidarity.

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