Limited English Proficiency in US: one in ten workers

According to a Brookings study, English proficiency is an essential gateway to economic opportunity for immigrant workers in the United States, but nearly one in 10 working-age U.S. adults—19.2 million persons aged 16 to 64—is considered to have limited English proficiency (LEP).

Working-age LEP adults earn 25 – 40% less than their English proficient counterparts. While less educated overall than English proficient adults, most LEP adults have a high school diploma, and 15 percent hold a college degree.

The size of the working-age LEP population is more than 2.5 times what it was in 1980, and the LEP share of the U.S. working-age population has almost doubled from 4.8% in 1980 to 9.3% in 2012. In Miami and Los Angeles LEP adults represent about a quarter of the working age population. San Francisco is the only other metro area. In New York City, about 18%.

There are shortages in English as a second language education, as evidenced by long waiting lists for instruction.

Brookings recommends:

  • Increase funding from the Workforce Investment Act, the main source of federal funding for adult education, and more funding at at the state and local level
  • Increase employer-initiated English education programs
  • Innovate instruction at the worksite, online, and by mobile device.

The leading certifications for teaching English as a second language to adults in the U.S. are TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and TESOL. My partner Rilla Murray obtained a certification in the Cambridge University program, CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages).



The Hispanic vote in Arizona in 2016

Republican presidential candidates have won Arizona in the past four elections, getting 54% of the vote in 2012. As of today FiveThirtyEight predicts 46.4% for Trump, 46.3% for Clinton, and 5.9% for Johnson. How might the Hispanic and other minority vote affect the outcome?

The Hispanic vote is credited with moving New Mexico into the Democratic column, and it may well be determinative this November in Nevada and Colorado. Arizona is on the edge.

Romney won 53.5% of the vote in Arizona in 2012. Obama won 74% Hispanic vote then, according to exit polls by NBC.

The Center For American Progress Action Fund, in a December, 2015 analysis of six states, says that the Latino population in Arizona increased from 13% in 1980 to 33% today. Whites, today 55% of the population, are 66.7% of eligible voters and 74% of the electorate. Latinos, with 33% of the population, make up 22.6% of eligible voters and 18% of actual voters. (Nationwide, Latinos may account for 12% of the entire presidential vote in November.) Asian/other voters are 7.7% of eligible voters in 2016.

The Pew Research Center reported national polling results that Clinton is well ahead of Trump among Latinos, but the spread varies among voter segments. Among millennials (18 to 35 year olds) – who make up 44% of all Hispanic eligible voters – Clinton leads 71%-19%. Her advantage is roughly as large (65%-26%) among older Hispanics (those 36 and older). Among Hispanic women, 71% say they support Clinton while 19% say they support Trump. By contrast, among Hispanic men, 61% support Clinton and 30% support Trump.

Clinton holds an 80%-11% lead among Hispanic voters who are bilingual or Spanish-dominant (those who are more proficient in Spanish than English); these voters make up about 57% of all Latino registered voters. However, among the smaller group of Hispanic voters (43%) who are English-dominant – those who are more proficient in English than Spanish – just 48% back Clinton (41% would vote for Trump).


1995 and 1996: when Immigration was almost curtailed

In the mid 1990s Congress came close to reducing the volume of legal immigration. It failed. It did enact a bill to focused on cracking down on illegal immigration, which eventually had no impact on the volume of illegal residents. Below is a capsule history of these failed efforts. Read this with 2016 in mind.


The 1980s saw a great increase in the award of green cards (legal permanent residency) due to the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986. That act legalized three million immigrants who had entered the U.S. before 1982. The underlying rate of green card issuance to new arrivals stayed at around 600,000. Unauthorized immigrant migration grew, from 3.5 million in 1990 to 5.7 million in 1995.

First, California politics blows up over immigration

Southern California experienced the surge acutely, with the foreign born population of Los Angeles Country growing from 11% in 1970 to 33% in 1990.

Pete Wilson, a Republican who as mayor of San Diego (1971 – 1983) and U.S. Senator (1983 – 1991) had been arguing for a formal guest worker program for many years, served as state governor between 1991 and 1999.

While he was governor, California became the first state to enact a law, through Referendum 187 in 1994, that severely restricted access of undocumented residents from public services, such as health care and education. A federal court ruled in 1998 that the law was unconstitutional.

Wilson was running for gubernatorial re-election in 1994, against Democrat Kathleen Brown, a member of the Brown political dynasty. In 1993, Wilson issued an “open letter” to the national media saying that illegal immigration was an intolerable burden to state and local governments. The 1994 election year, punctuated by the Northbridge earthquake, saw a loud debate about immigration, resulting in 59-41 vote in favor of Proposition 187 and Wilson’s re-election. 66% of those with a high school or less education voted in favor.

Then, Congress fumbles

In his 1995 State of the Union address, President Clinton said, “All Americans, not only in the states most heavily affected, but in every place in this country are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country.” In the Spring, the Jordan Commission issued a report recommending a sharp reduction in family-based green cards. Family based green cards, a feature of the 1965 immigration reform, were mainly granted to Mexicans. The Commission intended to reduce green card awards by about a third in total. The house of Representatives, now in the hands of Republicans for the first time in decades, created a immigration task force chaired by immigration restrictionist Elton Gallegy.

A bill reflecting the Commission and the task force was submitted June 22. The bill called for lower green card issuance, penalties employers who hire undocumented workers, and other measures. A key feature of the bill was the inclusion of both legal and illegal immigration provisions. A house sub-committee approved a version of the bill in the Fall on a largely party line vote, under the oversight of Congressman Lamar Smith.

Opponents to the bill were a strange coalition of church groups (who were pro-family reunification and pro refugee settlement), businesses that relied on cheap labor, such as hospitality, and Republican politicians (such as Jack Kemp) wanting not to alienate non-white constituencies. The Democrats were largely united in opposition. The opponents’ strategy was to split the legal and illegal immigration parts, to better protect the status quo of legal immigration laws.

Senator Alan Simpson submitted his own bill in November 1995 which would drastically lower family based immigration and lower employment based immigration by one third, and also lower refugee settlement.

Eventually most of the reductions in legal immigration were removed, and in the mid 1996 the House passed by 228-101 and the Senate by 78-21 the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. The last remaining provision that was removed was that of denying the right of undocumented children to receive a public education (the Gallegly amendment). The court and enforcement system for unauthorized persons of today was largely created by this law.

Kicking legal immigrants off public assistance

Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 constrained legal immigrants from government services. First, most non-citizens who arrived in the country before August 22, 1996 were to be removed from SSI and food stamp rolls within a year. (This provision of the legislation, however, was never fully enforced).
Second, immigrants who entered the United States after August 22, 1996 are prohibited for five years from receiving most types of public assistance. The ban is lifted when the immigrant becomes an American citizen. (This summary by George Borjas, here). This restriction was carried in the Affordable Care Act.


The new Republican Congress failed to reduce the level of legal immigration. It pursued, and got President Clinton to sign, new provisions that beefed up law enforcement and prevented / discouraged legal immigrants from accessing public programs. In sum, those who were concerned about foreigner free-loading off the country gained a partial victory. As Lamar Smith said at the time, “Immigration is not an entitlement, it is a privilege.” Republicans tried to make English the exclusive legal language, but abandoned the effort in face of a certain Clinton veto.

And, the law had little effect on the volume of both legal and illegal immigration in the years after.

More on Melania Trump

Per Politico, to enter the U.S. when Melania Trump did, which appears to have been in 1995, she needed a visa, because not until 1997 were Slovenian citizens allowed to enter without a visa. She could have used a B-1 Temporary Business Visitor or B-2 Tourist Visa, which typically last only up to six months and do not permit employment. She confirmed a reporter’s inquiry she had a H-1B temporary work visa, but that would not require her to repeatedly leave and return, which she said she did. Thus it was likely she was on a temporary non-work visa.


Farmworker Justice

Here is the 2015 annual report of Farmworker Justice.

Farmworker Justice  works with farmworkers and their organizations. Based in Washington, D.C, it was founded in 1981. In 1996, it became a subsidiary corporation of National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest constituency-based Hispanic civil rights organization. Farmworker Justice maintains an independent Board of Directors and 501(c)(3) status as a charitable corporation.

It focuses on civil and employment rights of farm workers; higher wages and better working conditions, including health and safety on the job, and comprehensive immigration reform,


Did Melania Trump break immigration laws in the 1990s?

Politico and other media organizations are speculating about the legal status of Melania Trump when she first came to the U.S. Working in the U.S. without authorization is a civil violation. Anyone who misrepresents her or himself to the U.S. government is subject to a criminal complaint. Melania may have incurred both vulnerabilities in the mid 1990s.

The official version (what she and the campaign said) was that she arrived first from Slovenia in 1996, returned regularly to Slovenia to renew her right to be in the U.S., became a legal permanent resident (LPR, Green Card) in 2001, and a citizen in 2001.

For her to work in the U.S. before gaining her LPR status in 2001, she would have had to have a visa allowing her to work, for instance as a model. Created by the Immigration Act of 1990, there is a complex system of temporary immigration statutes which enable foreigners to work for limited periods of time, and depending on the type of visa only at a designated occupation and employer.

A temporary work visa that Melania would have obtained would most likely have been a H-1B, which is available for skilled workers. According to Politico, she has said she came in 1996, but modeling photos of her were taken in the U.S. in 1995. Per Politico, “The nude photos were taken in New York in 1995 for the January 1996 issue of France’s now-defunct Max Magazine, according to the tabloid.”

The H-1B visa program (which includes one category for models) is for a minimum of three years. This would preclude Melania having to return to Slovenia repeatedly due to visa expiration and re-applying.

Politico writes: “In a January [2016] profile in Harper’s Bazaar, Trump said she would return home from New York to renew her visa every few months. “It never crossed my mind to stay here without papers. That is just the person you are,” she said. “You follow the rules. You follow the law. Every few months you need to fly back to Europe and stamp your visa. After a few visas, I applied for a green card and got it in 2001.”

A straightforward interpretation is that she did not initially have a visa allowing her to work. Apparently at the time a visa was not needed then for non-working stays in the U.S. for under 90 days, within any 180 day window. This means she would have to exit the U.S. often; wait for 90 days, and then return.

What low skills jobs do immigrants and native Americans appear to compete for?

The Atlantic reports on the dependence of landscaping businesses for temporary foreign workers to do landscaping work. Let’s put this demand for workers into the context of low skilled work not requiring much formal education. Are immigrants and native Americans broadly competing, when the supply of both workers is shrinking?

A close look at the jobs for which there appears to be competition leads one to see that the supply of poorly educated workers is shrinking among both immigrant and native born workers. This bodes for higher wages and increased automation.

There are fourteen jobs in America (including groundskeeping) not requiring a high school diploma, with at least 400,000 workers, and at least 20% of the jobs held by immigrants. The annual wages of these jobs range from $19,000 to $30,000 and average $23,000. About 16,800,000 in number, they account for about 11% of all jobs in the country, 21% of all immigrant workers and 9% of native American workers. Men hold 59% of these fourteen jobs. (The three held mostly by women are housekeepers, food preparers, and personal aides.)

Today, among 18- 24 year olds, only about 5% of white native-born white Americans and 7% of black Americans do not complete high school. In 2015, 23.9% of the foreign-born labor force age 25 and over had not completed high school, compared with 4.6% of the native-born labor force.

It’s important to note that the education level of recent immigrants is going up, plus the new labor force entrants are increasingly weighted towards second vs. first generation. Thus, there are more native born Hispanic workers than foreign born. The peak of foreign born Hispanics (56%) was in 2007. All 18- 24 year old Hispanics in the U.S. finishing high school at a 88% rate.

The Frey index for computerization of thee fourteen jobs ranges from 38% (hand packagers) to 95% (grounds keepers). This is the percentage of the work that could be taken over by automation. As robots decline in costs and expand in application, they are likely to take over a lot of the work now down by poorly educated workers.