SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Americans stand to lose at home and abroad in today's global economy if the access to English language classes does not improve for millions of adult immigrants — more than one third of them in California, according to a report released Tuesday by the Migration Policy Institute.
The Washington, D.C.-based group said the United States lags behind other industrialized nations such as Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany and Norway in making language instruction available to the large numbers of immigrants within their borders.
"With the retirement of the baby-boom generation set to begin next year, the United States cannot afford to have a substantial share of its workforce poorly educated and unable to meet the global economy's escalating demands for high worker productivity," the institute warned in a report called "Adult English Language Instruction in the United States: Determining Need and Investing Wisely."
Report co-author Michael Fix, the institute's vice president, said, "We're not going to see a growth in the native labor force in the foreseeable future. We're in this cutthroat international economy, and we have to invest in all of our workers and make the most of them."
The Migration Policy Institute generally supports revamping the U.S. visa system to legally admit immigrants if they are filling legitimate labor shortages. It also supports integrating those workers into U.S. society.
Fix acknowledged that some Americans may resist the idea of increasing educational aid to immigrants because their ancestors may not have received help learning English.
But refusing to improve immigrants' English training today is bound to hurt all Americans because it reduces immigrants' ability to upgrade skills, improve earning power and contribute more in taxes, Fix said.
"Whatever our grandparents may or may have not done," Fix said, "in this modern economy there is a high return on investing in language acquisition."
Immigrants constituted one of every two new workers added to the U.S. economy in the 1990s, Fix's study says. Today, they make up 15 percent of all workers and 45 percent of all low-skilled workers.
The new study reflects findings in April by the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California, which reported that the number of adult limited-English speakers in the state had tripled between 1980 and 2000.
California actually began providing free English instruction more than 150 years ago, back in the 1850s, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. But today, financing for those classes is mired at 1970s levels.
Fix said that immigrants' appetite for learning English may be large, but many can't get into crowded classes or may attend classes only periodically because of transportation or childcare problems, or because they work so many hours.
As a result, only 36 percent of adult students advance to a higher level during the course of a year, Fix said. To improve that rate, he suggested, federal and state policies should encourage employers to sponsor classes.
To catch up with other industrialized countries, Fix said, the United States needs to offer each immigrant roughly 110 hours of instruction every year for six years.
About 5.8 million legal residents who can't speak enough English now to pass the U.S. citizenship test would need this level of instruction, at a cost of about $1.2 billion a year. Americans already spend about $1 billion a year on English lessons — so an additional $200 million, spent wisely, would be worth the investment, Fix said.
The investments that states offer in English instruction for adult immigrants varies. For every federal dollar spent, Florida spends $8, California $7 and Texas only 30 cents.
Fix's report estimates it would cost about $2.9 billion a year to bring 6.4 million illegal immigrants up to proficient levels of English should they ever be put on a path to legal residency.
Several failed congressional proposals would have required illegal immigrants to learn English to obtain permanent residency, or else forfeit that opportunity, Fix pointed out.
If illegal immigrants were given the option to pursue legal residency in the future, Fix said, Congress could pay for English classes with the Social Security taxes that they pay.
Currently, taxes from about $432 billion in wages reported since 1994 are frozen in the Social Security Administration's Earnings Suspense File.
The taxes were paid by people whose Social Security numbers were invented, or whose numbers didn't match their names. Most of these workers are believed to be illegal immigrants, whose contributions to Social Security could already amount to $30 billion, according to the report.
"This is money," Fix said, "that's already been appropriated and should go back into the immigrant community for integration."
(c) 2007, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).
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