Of all the arrows in the anti-immigrant quiver, the most laughable may be "they don't even want to learn the language and fit in." It's easy to see how that misunderstanding arises: We interact with an immigrant who speaks no English and think, "Well, that just goes to show you." But that person may have just arrived.
Or we see a family or a gaggle of friends chattering in Spanish or Chinese and think, "When are they going to learn English and melt into the pot?" But the fact that they're speaking their native tongue to each other doesn't mean they don't know English.
The truth is that here on Long Island, the organizations that teach immigrants to read, speak and write English are overwhelmed by the crush of newcomers anxious to learn the language and assimilate.
The nonprofit organization Literacy Nassau has about 350 tutors helping more than 700 students. It also has a waiting list. "It could take months to get a private tutor once someone seeks our help," executive director Karen Micciche said.
According to Literacy Suffolk executive director Gini Booth, 250 to 300 tutors and testers serve about 350 students in her county while about 500 people wait for help.
Not all English instruction for newcomers is from these groups or one-on-one. The Island's BOCES organizations do much of the work, offering classroom-style instruction. And they are also slammed with demand. Nassau BOCES offers day and evening classes for people learning English as a second language at nine different sites, and it has a waiting list at every site. Western Suffolk BOCES is running 40 classes and has a waiting list for nearly all of them. And Eastern Suffolk BOCES, even with almost 1,500 adult students studying English, is in the same boat.
After taking a 12-hour training class, I recently began volunteering as a tutor for Literacy Suffolk. My student is a 55-year-old man from Nicaragua who has been here since 1996 and has been working to learn English, his third language, all along. As someone who took eight years of French (French I four times, then French II four times), I'm pretty impressed with his work ethic and ability.
My student doesn't need to improve his English to advance in a career. His very good job taking care of property and animals for a boss who speaks four languages doesn't require it. He doesn't need English to speak to his kids. They're fluently multilingual. He only needs to learn English to dig into life here, to be "part of."
Long Island is a land of immigrants, but a lot of people whose families came here a few generations ago seem to believe these new arrivals are fundamentally different from the previous waves. What you hear at bars or parties or read in online comments is, "When my grandparents came, they wanted to fit in, to learn English, to become Americans. But these immigrants today, they don't care about any of that."
Seven of my eight great-grandparents were born in other countries. Some learned English pretty well, from what their kids tell me. Some didn't, and on the Lower East Side, with Yiddish newspapers and kosher restaurants, they didn't have to.
Their kids, though, and grandkids, all spoke perfect English, and were as American as apple pie -- and latkes and pasta and pierogies.
We hear Russian and Korean in stores today, and Spanish and Farsi, just as we once would have heard Italian, Yiddish and Greek. If you think it's a problem, that immigrants aren't picking up English and assimilating fast enough, then your path forward is simple. Volunteer with Literacy Suffolk or Literacy Nassau and help get that problem solved.
Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.