By Andrew Soboeiro
Many assume that those wanting to live in this country must speak English, but in fact the United States does not have an official language. Nonetheless, there are many de facto advantages for immigrants based on language. Not only are English speakers favored, but those from primarily English-speaking countries are advantaged over those from other countries who learned English. Combined with the privileged role that Spanish plays among non-English speakers, these norms influence heavily who is able to live and work in the United States.
The Ease of Speaking English
While there is no official language requirement for living and working in the United States, many of the steps necessary to gain legal status give a signifiant leg up to English speakers. H-1B visas, for example, allow immigrants with rare skills to move here for up to three years. But the Federal government can challenge applications if it does not think an applicant’s skills are unique, and has been doing so with growing frequency. When the government challenges an H-1B applicant, their sponsor must provide documentation demonstrating that they have unique skills. If the applicant’s references are in another language, the company must go through the expensive and time-consuming process of translating them into English. This makes it much easier to sponsor workers who not only speak English, but are from primarily English-speaking countries, as their references will not need translating.
In addition to the present de facto advantage for English speakers, there is an ongoing effort to officially favor them in applications to live, work, or reside permanently in the US. In particular, the RAISE Act, an attempt to restrict immigration favored by President Trump, favors skilled immigrants, whom it defines in part by their ability to speak English. If this bill becomes law, it will further limit migration opportunities for non-English speakers.
Advantages for Other Languages
While English is privileged above everything else for those seeking to enter the United States, that doesn’t mean all other languages are treated equally. Because such a large percentage of immigrants and nonimmigrant visitors are Spanish-speakers, much of modern outreach to migrant communities is performed in Spanish. But this creates problems for migrants who do not speak Spanish. As a result, many of them have to take Spanish classes before learning English.
In response to this problem, some public and private organizations have begun expanding the languages they use in their outreach efforts. New York City, for example, offers services in the seven most common languages spoken within city limits: English, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Italian, and French Creole. But even these efforts leave many migrants out. A large number of immigrants from Mexico, for example, speak indigenous languages like Mixtec. Authorities may assume that because they are from Latin America, they will also speak Spanish, but many do not. Without more comprehensive translation efforts, such immigrants will continue to face significant barriers.