Literacy Tests, Love Letters, and Shifting Borders

By Kate Vieira


Literacy is a culturally dependent set of practices and resources that some have more access to than others—yet somehow, it remains a basis on which to redraw the border.  


Shifting Borders

We often think of borders as incontrovertible facts. If you have an atlas (or an app with an atlas), you can trace with your finger the outline of a seemingly contained country. Here is a river. Here is a desert. Here is a bounded territory that can be measured in kilometers or in miles.

But from the perspective of people who have moved, are moving, or are planning to move, the view is different. The lines keep getting redrawn. Depending on your papers, your phenotype, your last name, your religion, and on the whims and decisions of those in charge, the borders shift. The perimeter of what is a livable space within the U.S. constricts.

In 2017 and the early parts of 2018, the Trump administration has proposed or has just gone ahead and: rescinded DACA, closed the doors to refugees from certain countries, rescinded protective status for many, upped immigration enforcement, and restricted family reunification.

The result is that the shape of previously known territories is shifting underneath our feet. Borders are being rewritten.


A Wall and an English Test

There has been much talk of a wall in order to cement the border with Mexico into steel. Less discussed has been another technology of border policing: the English Test. As part of Senate Bill 1720, the RAISE act, currently in committee, the U.S. would institute a “skills-based points system” for entry, part of which would rely on an English test as a tie breaker.

Particular versions of the U.S. border are enforced by guns, the national guard, and Customs & Border Protection—and also by English literacy. Of the many recent threats to humane immigration policy, an English literacy test as a prerequisite for legal entry may seem benign. 

It is not.


Literacy tests have historically perpetuated white supremacy

 The 1917 Immigration Act expanded the Chinese Exclusion Act, discriminated based on ability, and instituted a literacy test to limit migration from countries deemed racially undesirable. The test itself, involving reading a short passage in any language, did a poor job of actually stemming immigration.

But its ideological effect was still pernicious: It cemented the link between literacy and racial desirability as a basis for immigration policy. One’s whiteness was in part determined based on one’s literacy. And one’s literate ability was in part determined by one’s whiteness. As part of this process, literacy was coded as what scholar Prendergast has called a “white property right.” As a method of racially engineering the U.S. populace, literacy tests laid the groundwork for the race-based immigration quotas of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act. To differing degrees, the targeted included: Southern and Eastern Europeans, Africans, and Middle Easterners. Asians were excluded entirely.

Literacy tests are not objective

 Now. You may be thinking, how can literacy be a tool of white supremacist immigration policy? People can either read or they can’t. Right?

Actually no.

Literacy is a much squishier skill than it seems. In fact, many scholars call it a practice rather than a skill. It is a thing you do that is tied up in your context—your culture, your language, your gender, your sexuality, your race, your family, your class, your body, your brain, the materials you are using to read and to write . . .

In my research for my book about literacy and immigration, I interviewed a woman, Cristina, who tried three times to pass the English literacy test associated with naturalization. She had come to the U.S. as a child and left school to help her family make ends meet. A bilingual caretaker for the elderly, she described to me how the U.S. had been her home for over 30 years. But to become a citizen, she had to prove her belonging in English literacy.

She paid for the naturalization test three times ($675 a pop). Three times, she failed.

She was already a permanent resident, so the failure or passing of this test did not mean restricted entry. But the case raises a question relevant to the RAISE act: What exactly is being tested under the name of literacy? For Cristina, it seemed what was being tested was how badly her parents needed the five dollars an hour she likely earned in her work on the factory line instead of going to school.

Popularly, we often believe that literacy measures intelligence. Moral fitness. Inner strength. It does not. Rather, literacy is a culturally dependent set of practices and resources that some have more access to than others. As such, literacy is not a sensible basis on which to redraw the border.

Literacy testing, by the way, can also be biased. Cristina passed her test on the fourth try. She recalled having to write the colors of the flags and the color of her car. In the end, she told me, this tester was nice.  “I don’t know why the others didn’t let you pass,” she said he said.  And just like that, she became “American,” or at least, as she put it, “American by paper.”


The proposed literacy test is not about literacy

English literacy tests make about as much practical sense as a border wall. Remember, literacy in any language is tied up in its social context. To really test someone’s potential to use literacy well in the U.S., test makers would have to account for specific living situations, jobs, and geographies. And they would have to do so in multiple languages, since English is not the U.S. official language, and since in many areas English is not the lingua franca.

To really develop a rocking integration of literacy into immigration reform, the U.S. might dispatch teams of literacy instructors to help potential migrants develop multilingual and multimodal portfolios of writing that they could use stateside for political participation and community engagement. Likewise, literacy instructors from migrants’ communities could teach U.S. host communities about migrants’ cultures of literacy, so that host communities would be prepared to learn from migrants’ many linguistic gifts.

If this scenario seems utopian, it’s because the proposal of an English literacy test isn’t about literacy development at all. If it were, the administration would already be investing in culturally relevant, multilingual literacy education for all of us who call the territory that is currently part of the U.S. home, so that we could better communicate with our neighbors.


Literacy is not a wall

At its heart, literacy and language are about communication. There’s a writer. There’s a reader. There’s a text.


In that dialogic process, there is the potential to make meaning, to open up some space in an increasingly suffocating cartography.

The same bill that unquestioningly proposes the English literacy test as ‘tiebreaker’ also proposes restricting family reunification, the process that replaced the 1924 race-based quota system, and through which a mother or son or spouse can officially invite a family member to the U.S. Such invitations involve writing what in Portuguese is called a carta de chamada, literally a letter that calls, a letter that unites. The family reunification policy has never been perfect. But in writing this kind of bureaucratic love letter, there is the possibility that borders can be revised with the words of the people who know them best—those who have crossed them.


Kate Vieira is professor of English at UW Madison and the author of American by Paper: How Documents Matter in Immigrant Literacy (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) and Writing for Love and Money: How Migration Promotes Literacy Learning in Transnational Families (under contract, Oxford University Press). You can learn more about her work here: Doctoral candidate Calley Marotta provided research and editorial assistance for this post.