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Language Barrier No Deterrent to Immigrant Success

Friday, September 12, 2014

Many immigrants to the United States manage to become successful – sometimes, extremely so – without mastering the English language. The ability to succeed in the U.S. without English is due, in large part, to the population’s increasingly cosmopolitan nature and technological leaps that bring the world closer together than it has ever been. Although the vast majority of immigrants assimilate into American culture to some extent, it can prove more difficult for some. However, a lack of ability to seamlessly integrate one's life into mainstream America does not necessarily mean marginalization.
A New York Times article cites the example of Felix Sanchez de la Vega Guzman, who began selling tortillas on the street and grew his business into a food manufacturing venture with nearly $20 million in revenues. Although he arrived in New York from Mexico more than 40 years ago, Sanchez speaks only a few phrases of halting English.
While such success has always been possible – especially in large cities with thriving immigrant communities – technology has made the possibility of financial success, without learning English, more of a reality for many new Americans. The Internet, cell phones and social media allow immigrants to market far beyond their own cities, to other communities where their native language is spoken. Some – like Sanchez – are even able to reach back to their countries to find suppliers and customers, as well. In New York, alone, other non-English speaking entrepreneur success stories have emerged from the Chinese and South Korean Communities, in addition to communities from Spanish-speaking countries other than Mexico.
Data from the 2010 Census reveals that between 4 and 5 million heads of U.S. households were poor English speakers, or didn’t speak the language “at all.” All such individuals were income earners, and more than 35,000 reported household incomes that exceed $200,000 annually. This segment of the American population represents billions of dollars flowing through the U.S. economy.

At the same time, however, 31 states have laws on the books declaring English the official language of the jurisdiction. The Washington Post reports that five more states are considering similar laws this year. Such laws appear to serve little purpose except to avoid making official documents available in  any other language. Missouri’s law, for example, says the “general assembly… recognizes that fluency in English is necessary for full integration into our common American culture.” Yet, it seems that creating a thriving American business, jobs, a family and a network of community support is about as integrated as one can be in our culture.

With immigration reform at a standstill on the federal level, lawmakers spending time on legislation that could seem alienating to a large, vibrant and economically important segment of the population is shortsighted. Legislatures should, instead, work to make states more welcoming and embrace the diversity of very relevant tax base. 

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