Marco Rubio's Broken English Requirement

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, has proposed an amendment to the current Gang of Eight immigration bill requiring English proficiency in order to obtain a green card.

Marco Rubio wants immigrants to learn English—and fast. Last week, the Florida Senator introduced an amendment to the Gang of Eight's immigration bill, currently being debated on the floor of the Senate, that would require undocumented immigrants to demonstrate English proficiency before becoming legal permanent residents. Current law already requires English proficiency for naturalization, but the proposal would impose the requirement just to obtain a green card. "I just truly believe that as part of any successful immigration reform, you have to have assimilation," Rubio said in explaining the purpose of the amendment. "And one of the quickest ways for people to assimilate into our culture and into our society is to speak the unifying language of our country, which is English." Rubio says his amendment closes a "loophole" in the bill, which only requires the undocumented to show they are enrolled in a government-approved English course. A vote on the amendment is expected in the next few weeks.

The idea that immigrants should learn English seems like a no-brainer. In a multi-ethnic country, not only does it contribute to a sense of national unity, it confers economic benefits: According to the 2000 Census, immigrants who are fluent in English earn almost double the hourly wage of those who don't speak the language. English-language skills also open the door to participation in civic life. But for first-generation immigrants from non-English-speaking countries, acquiring these language skills is largely a question of whether one can afford the hundreds of hours of instruction necessary to achieve proficiency. With scant government funding for language training in the United States, the effect of English-language requirements—either for legal permanent residence (Rubio's proposal) or naturalization (the status quo)—is to discourage immigration among those who are poor. 

First, let's dispel a myth: The current crop of immigrants is not resisting learning English. Today's immigrants from Asia and Latin America are following exactly the same pattern of linguistic assimilation as their predecessors from Northern and Southern Europe, and at a comparable rate: Their children tend to be bilingual, and the third generation produces largely monolingual English speakers. In other words, across time, linguistic assimilation takes care of itself. This is by virtue of the fact that children under the age of seven—the "critical period" for language acquisition—will absorb English simply by being exposed to it. Take a newborn from rural China and raise her in America, and she will grow up to be a native English speaker.

Infographic: Why Don't They Speak English?

But adults must be explicitly taught the grammar and vocabulary of a new language. While immigrants who have lived in the United States for a long time will have passively picked up enough English to get by, they require instruction in order to progress beyond a phrasebook understanding. Herein lies the problem with the current English-language requirements—and the one Rubio is proposing. To pass the U.S. citizenship test—or, if Rubio's amendment is adopted, simply to get a green card—one must achieve a "level 3" of English proficiency. While this is not a high level of fluency—a level 3 learner is still considered "developing," and requires assistance to understand or express herself on more complex topics—it takes about 330 hours of instruction to get there. At an average cost of $10 an hour, that's $3,300 for every aspiring immigrant. This doesn't pose much of a problem for the high-tech worker who's about to start a job at Microsoft and either already speaks English proficiently or can cough up a few thousand bucks to learn. But for low-skilled, poor immigrants—which make up the bulk of the undocumented—it's a nearly insurmountable barrier. In effect, what Rubio's requirement will do is exclude millions of poor, undocumented immigrants from ever getting a green card.

Part of what Rubio is trying to do with the language requirement is avoid the situation we got ourselves into in 1986, the last time there was a mass-legalization program. The 1986 amnesty granted legal permanent residency to about 2.7 million undocumented immigrants, but only 40 percent of those had gone on to become citizens by 2010. Immigrants cited the $680 fee and fear of failing the citizenship test as the primary reasons not to take the final plunge. The thinking behind requiring English for legal permanent residence this go-around is that immigrants will be more likely to proceed to citizenship—you're already halfway there. But you see the problem: All Rubio's amendment does is move the barrier of entry. Rather than get stuck in in the limbo between legal permanent residence and naturalization, immigrants who can't afford instruction get stuck in the limbo between provisional immigrant status and legal permanent residence.

Rubio's proposal highlights is a key difference between the U.S.'s approach to immigration and that of other industrialized countries. We set a national immigration policy and then thrust the burden of integration either on immigrants themselves or individual state governments. This isn't to say we make no investment in helping immigrants learn English. The U.S. Department of Education does set aside about $250 to $300 million per year for adult education, including language instruction. States contribute about $700 million. The current immigration bill being debated in the Senate would kick in another $100 million. But this doesn't begin to meet the demand—either for the undocumented or for those who are already legal permanent residents. According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, approximately 5.8 million legal permanent residents, and 6.4 million of the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants, have limited proficiency in English. Wait times for English courses can run up to three years. The current system provides about 112 million hours of language instruction per year, but it would take 2.3 billion hours of instruction to get every immigrant group currently in the pipeline at a basic level of English. MPI estimates it would take between $11.5 and $23 billion total to equip immigrants with the language skills they need. Without that investment, the burden of learning English falls to immigrants themselves, and only those who can afford it will proceed through the naturalization process.

This is why other countries match their immigration policy with robust immigrant-integration initiatives that include language instruction. Germany, for instance, offers new immigrants 600 45-minute language classes. Norway offers newcomers a 300-hour crash course in both Norwegian language and civics. Australia offers 550 hours, and the U.K. will let you take English-language courses until you reach high-school-level proficiency. These countries don't just talk about the need to integrate immigrants and prepare them to succeed in their adopted country—they put money behind it.

One of the many hackneyed refrains of the immigration debate is that this is the "land of opportunity" for immigrants. To make this truly the case, we should invest in equipping "our tired, our poor" with the tools they need to succeed here—or drop the English-language requirement and let immigrants fend for themselves.

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