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Do You Have to Speak English to Become an American Citizen?

You Don't Have to Speak English to Be a US Citizen — No Matter What the White House Claims

The White House press briefings under President Donald Trump have always been somewhat wild, but on Aug. 2, things took a rather alarming turn when top Trump policy aide Stephen Miller took the podium to discuss the new legislation on immigration.

CNN reporter Jim Acosta kicked things off with a reasonable observation:

"What you're proposing and what the president is proposing does not sound like it's in keeping with American tradition when it comes to immigration. The Statue of Liberty says, 'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.' It doesn't say anything about speaking English or being a computer programmer. Aren't you trying to change what it means to be an immigrant coming into this country if you're telling them you have to speak English? Can't people learn how to speak English when they get here?"

What ensued next was not only notable for the ferocity with which Miller rebutted Acosta but also due to two glaring factual errors in Miller's retort.

First and foremost, Miller's rebuttal contained a disavowal of the poem that is found at the base of the Statue of Liberty. "I don't want to get off into a whole thing about history here, but the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of liberty lighting the world," Miller said, adding, "the poem you are referring to, which was added later, is not part of the original Statue of Liberty." In reality, the poem was written for the unveiling of the statue by poet Emma Lazarus, who donated it to an auction to raise money for the pedestal. Not only was Miller's assertion factually incorrect, but it was also just a terrible look for the White House; the Statue of Liberty is an icon of the United States' inclusiveness and serves as a symbolic beacon to all those who seek asylum.

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The second piece of information that Miller got wrong, however, is far more consequential. "Right now it's a requirement that, to be naturalized, you have to speak English," Miller said, dripping with condescension, "so the notion that speaking English wouldn't be part of our immigration system would be very ahistorical." Speaking fluent English is not — nor has it ever been — a requirement to become a naturalized citizen in the United States.

According to the United States Citizen and Immigration Services, "A naturalization applicant must only demonstrate an ability to read, write, speak, and understand words in ordinary usage," which means that applicants can have "noticeable errors in pronouncing, constructing, spelling, and understanding completely certain words, phrases, and sentences" and still pass. Put quite simply: you don't have to be a native speaker to become an American. Individuals can also receive an exemption from this clause for a variety of reasons, including having lived in the country for a certain span of time and being over a certain age, or having a disability.

In the wake of the press briefing, many organizations were quick to issue press releases that condemned Miller's words. But the executive director of the Anne Frank Center, Steven Goldstein, said it best: "His subpar knowledge of American history, as reflected in Emma Lazarus' poem, means he couldn't pass President Trump's new immigration test. Therefore, Stephen, please leave."

Image Source: Getty
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