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More English, More Money? Maybe Not In Miami


The list of things that threaten the U. S. economy is long, indeed. But here's one item that might not have occurred to you.

Speaking bad English.

As the Brookings Institution scopes it out in a report released Wednesday, immigrants seeking work in the U. S. often have to settle for jobs beneath their qualifications just because their English is not up to snuff.

Because they earn less, they contribute less in taxes and consumer spending. And the aggregate loss drags down the economy.

According to Brookings, which culled data from Miami and 88 other metro areas, one in 10 workers in America is underemployed because they aren't proficient in English. Brookings' recommended solution: A greater investment in English language classes to alleviate the long lines and waiting periods to access English classes in many American cities.

In Miami, the numbers are larger and -- at least, on the surface -- more alarming. Twenty-three percent of the residents of the Miami area (which includes Broward County) have poor English skills and may be paying the price in smaller paychecks.

Some local labor experts say the numbers are right, but Brookings has missed some key points about Miami.

For instance, according to professor Alayne Unterberger of Florida International University's Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy, immigrants who come to Miami do not generally wind up working in farm fields or on construction sites. Their biggest employer is actually retail, and it’s retail in a majority-minority community.

Some key points:

Language is an issue, Unterberger says, but not in the way Brookings lays it out. "I have students who are from the Caribbean and they have a hard time getting employed because they don't speak fluent Spanish," Unterberger says. "When your main employer is retail, you're face-to-face with customers whose primary language is Spanish."

Lack of citizenship is a higher barrier to success. According to Unterberger's math, citizens earn an average of $11,960 a year more than noncitizens. According to Brookings, the average annual earnings of an immigrant with poor English (citizenship unspecified) is $24,000.

"Learning English would help, but that's not the only thing. We also need some sort of pathway to citizenship because that's what's gong to help people double their incomes," she says.

Immigrants come to Miami with better job skills. The area attracts a lot of professionals and skilled workers from Latin America and elsewhere. But, when they arrive, they find their biggest problem is not the language barrier but the red tape between them and U. S. versions of the occupational licenses and permits they already earned in their home countries.

"It's not something that language would facilitate," says Ali Bustamante, a Loyola University economic policy specialist who previously worked at FIU. "They need license transfer and a supportive infrastructure. Do you need English to be a hairdresser? Probably not. But do you need occupational licensing? Yes."

While it’s probably true that better jobs await behind a barrier of language for many immigrants in the U. S., and public and private sectors could improve the economy by investing in an infrastructure of English lessons, the city-to-city comparison ends as many of them do: In Miami, it’s different.