What Should We Expect From Immigrants?

Responses are pouring in to the permanent resident from India who wrote, “I fail to understand why amnesty for illegal immigrants is assumed to be a force for the good. Why should we reward people for breaking the law? And why is it so unacceptable to ask immigrants to learn English?” One reader:

While I understand the Indian immigrant’s very justified frustration, his arguments against amnesty based on the rule of law miss an important point. The immigrants in question paid to travel from their places of origin to the United States because there was work to be had. And who provided that work? It was us, as a society. We were willing to look the other way when our farms hired migrant workers to bring in the harvest; when our landscapers hired day laborers without green cards; when our hotels and restaurants and meatpacking plants and retailers hired workers who they knew would do more work for less money and who had a strong disincentive against complaint if conditions were bad.

If we would punish those who came to fill the demand we placed as a society, shouldn’t we punish those responsible for that demand? And if we are unwilling or unable to punish those who willingly exploited this failure in the name of profit, why should we punish those who were exploited?

Another writes:

I think these types of questions have a flawed premise. Rather than asking “Why can’t they just learn English?”, we should be asking “On what moral and ethical basis can we exclude anyone from migrating to our country?” As long as the people in question are acting in good faith, and want to come to America with the intention of working and securing a better future for their family, what right do we have to refuse them?


Many years in this country apparently did not teach your reader the finer points. I am from India as well. I came here for school, and when a company offered a job, I stayed. It’s been about 17 years now. Somewhere along the way, I applied for the green card, and then citizenship, all like clockwork. All went through, at considerable costs. These are not cheap or easy processes, especially if you go through a lawyer. And that gave me perspective.

For many from Mexico or Central America, these costs can hardly be borne without breaking their meager savings. They trekked across and made this dangerous journey, all for a better life. Not for mansions, just to work at a mansion. Not for enjoying the finest cuisines, but to work in the kitchen. They have higher goals, I am sure, and I wish them the very best to get there. The person from India thinks nothing of speaking English, or a few other languages. This is just not possible for an average immigrant who crossed the Rio Grande in desperation.

I wish the reader would learn what America means truly to a lot of people before he gets naturalized – and I promise, it is not “I came here in a plane with papers, and you did not!” or “I speak English, and so should you!”

On that note:

We are not lowering the bar by failing to mandate English; we would in effect be dramatically raising the bar beyond anything we have required of previous generations. First-generation travelers from Europe and Asia were just as likely to establish conclaves built around their former homelands’ cultures and languages as modern-day arrivals do. Why do you think we have sections of major metropolitan cities and states referred to as Little China or Little Italy or Pennsylvania Dutch Country? Why are those areas considered fantastic islands of preserved culture and a core part of the Americana, while Little Havana or Little Haiti are disparaged as as problems of failed assimilation?

Another adds:

This has been true since 1753, when Ben Franklin wrote of German-speaking immigrants:

Few of their children in the country learn English. … The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages, and in some cases only German. … Unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so outnumber us [so] that all the advantages we have will, in my opinion, be not able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.

But an American abroad argues that a language requirement would be “pro-immigrant, in that it should reduce the risk of social isolation, victimization, or helplessness in dangerous situations”:

I’m am American living in Italy, which within the past few years has instituted a language test requirement for all who apply for long-duration residency. The test itself was much easier than I anticipated: present tense only, checking one’s ability to comprehend brief written and verbal passages on topics like grocery shopping, job openings (as if they exist here), and the weather – things one needs to understand to function anywhere. Then you had to write a brief “postcard” to a friend describing your new “job.” Based on the names on the roster, many of them started life with a different alphabet, either Arabic or Cyrillic. Of the 47 other testees in my group, only one failed.

Without any demonstrable language skills, one is far more likely to be taken advantage of, if not outright exploited. People need to be able to call the police or ambulance, understand job terms, navigate basic transactions, speak with a doctor. You don’t need fluency or an advanced vocabulary, but you do need to be able to connect in some elementary way with the people around you for a sense of social inclusion as well.