September 11 — 12:00 am, 2008

Commentary: Myths about immigration and bilingual education


“Those who come hither are generally the most ignorant stupid sort of their own nation …. They will soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we will have will not, in my opinion, be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.”

Perhaps a quote from an anti-immigration TV personality? Lou Dobbs? Pat Buchanan?

Nope. It’s Ben Franklin in 1753, talking about German immigrants.

The controversy that swirls today about immigration and related issues is not new – nor are the myths and stereotypes that inform this discussion. Here are some of them:

Earlier immigrants from Europe weren’t breaking the law, but now most immigrants come here illegally.

Until World War I, European immigration was unrestricted. Those immigrants, who, like today’s, were driven by the desire for work and better living conditions, did not face the issue of breaking the law.

Most of today’s immigrants are here legally. Three-fourths have legal permanent visas.

Of the minority who are undocumented, 40 percent actually did enter legally, but they have violated the restrictions of temporary visas.

Earlier immigrants had to learn English and did fine, but now immigrants act like it’s a problem.

According to the U.S. census bureau, 75 percent of today’s immigrants learn to speak English well within ten years of arrival. Like past generations, while English proficiency is lower in the first generation, it is over 90 percent in the second and virtually universal by the third.

Earlier European immigrants were aided by many bilingual services and by schools where much instruction was in their native tongue. By the mid-1800s, many states, including Pennsylvania, maintained public schools with bilingual programs.

Like many immigrant children today, earlier immigrant students did not all do fine, often suffering from schools where resources were scarce and attention to their language issues was minimal. In 1911, the U.S. immigration service found that 77 percent of Italian, 60 percent of Russian, and 51 percent of German immigrant children were one or more grade levels behind.

Bilingual education has been shown to be a failure. English-only programs are the way to teach immigrants.

In fact, much research indicates that quality bilingual programs are effective while English-only immersion programs lead to students falling further behind.

The Thomas and Collier study, a comprehensive look at 700,000 language minority students from 1982 to 1996, concluded that “only quality, long-term enrichment bilingual programs … will give language minority students the grade-level cognitive and academic development needed to be … successful in English, and to sustain their success as they reach their high school years.”

A more recent study of Arizona students in 2000 found that for three years running, students in bilingual programs scored significantly higher on standardized language arts tests than students in English-only programs.

Immigrants don’t pay taxes, but they use services that the rest of us have to pay for.

The libertarian Cato Institute acknowledges that immigrants, including the undocumented, actually pay between $90 and $140 billion in federal, state, and local taxes annually. One study found that immigrants pay an estimated $20 to $30 billion more in taxes than they receive in services, while another put the figure much higher, at $85 billion.

Immigrants are dragging down the U.S. economy and taking away jobs from Americans

The largest wave of immigration in modern times, during the 1990s, coincided with the lowest national unemployment rate and fastest economic growth. Immigrants are mainly employed either in lowpaying jobs that native-born workers won’t take or in skilled, technical, and professional positions where there are shortages.

Immigrants make sizable investments in small businesses and other enterprises. For example, Silicon Valley companies started by Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs generated an estimated 73,000 jobs, according to the Brookings Institute. Their net benefit to the U.S. economy is estimated at nearly $10 billion.

The real problem is weak border enforcement.

In the late 1980s, the budget for border enforcement was increased sixfold, the number of border agents doubled, and patrols were beefed up. Nevertheless, the number of undocumented workers during that period doubled.

The current emphasis on tougher enforcement is unlikely to be any more successful. As long as there is a disconnect between the opportunities for work and legal avenues for entry, illegal immigration will continue.

the notebook

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