Language in America - English and Citizenship


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A permanent resident alien must have a basic understanding of English to become a naturalized citizen. 8 U.S.C. 1423. There are exceptions: residents of Puerto Rico who speak only Spanish are citizens without being naturalized and some older residents who have lived in the United States for 15 years without becoming citizens don’t have to show they can speak English.

On July 2, 1993, a federal judge in Tucson, Arizona, conducted a naturalization ceremony in Spanish. Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner suggested that more non-English language ceremonies would be held, Source: INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, "We Are Transforming Ourselves," ImmPAC, October 1993, but complaints from Capitol Hill appear to have blocked any more non-English ceremonies.

And some illegal immigrants are raising their children without teaching them English, hoping the schools will do that job. The Washington Post recently reported that as many as two-thirds of the children in suburban Arlington County, Virginia, receiving language assistance from kindergarten through second-grade are born in the United States to non-English-speaking parents who don’t read to them, talk to them or provide them a background in any language. Source: "Not Speaking Their Native Tongue," The Washington Post, May 14, 1996, A1.

Congress is considering whether to require the INS to conduct naturalization ceremonies in English. 104th Cong., H.R. 739.

Excerpts From "Not Speaking Their Native Tongue," The Washington Post, May 14, 1996

"For all her six years, Yoana has lived only in [Virginia] neighborhoods such as this, raised by Salvadoran immigrants whose world is Spanish. So when she entered kindergarten in the fall, she spoke not a word of English.

"Yoana, like many of the young Latino children now being placed in ESL classes, has no firm foundation in English or Spanish. Only eight months ago, she did not know ‘red’ or ‘blue’ in either language.

"Yoana’s father never worried about his daughter’s lack of English. ‘It’s her first year in school, and I thought she would learn it there,’ he said. ‘They are taking care of her. They’re teaching her a lot. She will learn.’

"‘I’d like to live in a place where they speak only English,’ he said. That way, he said, his children would probably pick up the language from other children. But these ‘casa grandes,’ he said, are expensive.

"School officials say the parents of U.S.-born ESL students typically have a limited education, work long hours and have little time to read or converse with their children. This delays a child’s progress in the family’s first language, – and without that foundation, exposure to English-language television, radio and books will not help a child learn English."

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