Jim Acosta Has No Idea How Many Immigrants Speak English

White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
AP Photo/Susan Walsh

CNN reporter Jim Acosta doesn’t know much about immigrants to the United States.

Senior White House adviser Stephen Miller was taking questions Wednesday from reporters about the White House’s new immigration reform proposal. Included in the proposal is a point system that would favor immigrants who speak English.

Acosta said that the English preference “does not sound like its keeping with the American tradition.” He went on to ask if the English preference meant that only immigrants from England and Australia would be allowed into the country.

“I am shocked at your statement that you think only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English,” Miller said. He said Acosta’s question was “insulting millions of hard woking immigrants that do speak English from all over the world.”

Miller is right. The U.S. has recent immigrants from more than 20 countries outside of Britain and Australia where English is the official or dominant language. These include a large number of Caribbean nations, such as Barbados, Bahamas, Jamaica, and Antiqua-Barbuda. Two English-speaking African countries, Liberia and Zimbabwe, also send a number of immigrants to the U.S.

Surprisingly, neither the U.S. Census nor U.S. immigration authorities collect information about the English proficiency skills of immigrants at time of arrival. In the absence of data, social scientists focus on the language skills of recently arrived immigrants. These recent arrivals serve as a proxy for arrivals because they have had little time to improve their language skills. Data on these immigrants suggest that a far higher portion of immigrants speak English when they arrive than Acosta’s questions would indicate.

According to the census data, a full 11.3 percent of recent immigrants speak only English. Another 32.9 percent speak English “very well.” Nearly twenty-two percent report that they speak English “well.” In aggregate, then, two-thirds of recently arrived immigrants speak English well or better.

Looked at from the other side, only around 13 percent of recent immigrants speak no English at all, while 21.3 percent rate as speaking English “not well.” This suggests that the number of non-English speaking immigrants who enter under current law is far smaller than Acosta apparently believes.


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