Language and Citizenship

By Thomas Elias
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 6, Number 4 (Summer 1996)
Issue theme: "The battle for official English"

More applicants than ever before are winning American citizenship without having to learn enough English even to answer the rudimentary questions on the multiple-choice civics tests of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Besides INS operated test centers, all of the 828 other organizations authorized to give the test received permission late last year to give citizenship exams in languages other than English.

The non-English tests - often given in Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese and Tagalog - have been available since 1951 to any citizenship applicant who is over 50 and has lived in this country more than 20 years. Persons over 55 who have lived here legally more than 15 years also are not required to take their test in English.

But until last month, the foreign-language tests were given only at INS offices and not by commu-nity groups that contract to administer the exam.

When the private Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J. began giving the test in Spanish in California and five other states last fall, demand was immediate. Of the 10,000 tests the firm administered Dec. 16, 700 were in Spanish, for a total of 7 percent.

No one knows precisely how many applicants for citizenship fall into the categories where English is not required. "We're not tracking those numbers," says INS spokeswoman Kelly Richfield.

But the demand for foreign-language tests is growing, reports ETS, the government's largest testing contractor. Its affiliated test sites will soon start offering the exam in Korean and Vietnamese.

The demand is an outgrowth of the exponential increase in citizenship applications since November 1994, when California voters passed the Proposition 187 ballot initiative aiming to deprive illegal immigrants of more government services.

"Legal immigrants, people who have lived here and paid taxes for decades, saw that vote as a direct threat," said Bobbi Murray, an official of the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights. "They saw it as a first step, with an attack on the rights of all immigrants to follow."

Since passage of Proposition 187, the INS has received more than 60,000 citizenship applications per month, with an average of 31,000 per month in California. Fully 725,000 persons applied for citizenship nationally in the year after Proposition 187 passed, almost double the number from the previous twelve months. Many are eligible to take the required exam in their native languages.

"Since passage of Proposition 187,

the INS has received more than

60,000 citizenship applications

per month..." "We can see the demand increasing steadily," said Juliette Contreras, director of field activities for the ETS New Citizen Project. The firm subcontracts testing functions to community organizations in most parts of the nation, including more than 100 in California.

"This is a good thing," says Murray. "These people have been paying taxes for decades. Why should language prevent them from becoming citizens?"

Because if they don't learn English, they can't hope to be full-fledged citizens, responds Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "English is the grand pillar of American assimilation," Stein asserts. "This is all part of a dumbing-down trend. Teddy Roosevelt said we need to have a shared sense of what it means to be an American. That includes English as a common language."

Agrees Daphne Magnuson of U.S. English, a 640,000-member group dedicated to making English the only official language in the U.S. "To participate in the democratic process, people must know English. By allowing these tests in other languages, the government is sending a destructive message."

But those arguments mean little to the applicants, who often stand in line for hours before taking their tests.

"I see that if I don't become a citizen, they may take away some of my rights," said Guatemalan native Arturo Gonzales, a self-employed sheet-metal worker waiting to take the test in Spanish in Los Angeles. "I have lived here 27 years and I speak English. But I think I understand the questions better in Spanish."

Because the INS doesn't even keep track of how many non-English tests it gives, no one knows precisely how many of the new citizenship applicants speak passable English.

But a 1993 survey by the state's Research Bureau found that fully 70 percent of all immigrants in California, both legal and illegal, claimed they were proficient in English.

"That still leaves 30 percent, most of whom have paid taxes for many years," said Murray. "If they now want to participate by being citizens why should we let language get in the way?" □

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