What Will Adult Education Advocates Be Looking for in the Pending Immigration Reform Legislation?

(Updated Below)

The basic outline of the coming immigration reform legislation is pretty clear, but reports are that we probably won’t see any actual legislation until March. (That’s the deadline that the eight senators who signed onto the immigration reform principles last week have set for themselves to deliver a bill.) Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to hold a hearing on immigration reform on February 13th.

For those of you in the adult education field, what will you be looking for when the bill is finally released? Here’s my list:

Funding. This is the biggest issue, I think. Will there by any new funding for adult English language instruction in the bill? Members of the Senate group have consistently stated that undocumented immigrants will be required to learn English in order to attain permanent residency status. (This is currently not required for those residing outside the U.S. applying for “regular” permanent residency.) That provision is going to create a large increase in demand for adult english language instruction. (We can be certain of this, as we’ve already seen a big surge in demand due to the President’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative.) Will the eventual legislation expand opportunities or provide additional resources for adult English language instruction?

I wasn’t really that closely involved the last time immigration reform was kicked around, but my understanding is that some of the proposals did include additional adult education funding. This time, however, I think it’s highly unlikely, considering the current fiscal climate, that we’ll see a bill that invests any taxpayer money into increasing adult education capacity, (even if it’s the “back taxes” the Senate plan would require of those seeking to obtain probationary legal status)—particularly considering that the primary beneficiaries of that funding would be undocumented immigrants.

But the Senate framework also includes language about additional fines to be paid by undocumented immigrants as well. Could the funds collected from those fines be used to provide funding for additional English classes? Is that something the adult education field would endorse?

Eligibility. In at least one state I know of (Arizona) undocumented immigrants are banned from enrolling in adult education courses administered by the Department of Education at state or federally funded schools. Even if no new dollars are forthcoming for adult education in this bill, could there something in there that might open up access to federally adult education programs to those individuals?

Proficiency. What level of English language skills will be sufficient to meet the English requirement. How will each applicant’s English language skills be assessed? Will it more-or-less mirror the process used by applicants for citizenship, or will it be something else?

Exceptions. As I noted last week, under the normal rules for those applying for citizenship, there are exceptions to the requirement that applicants know English. Generally, those over a certain age who have lived in the U.S. for significant amount of time are exempt from the English requirement when applying for citizenship, and an applicant with “a physical or developmental disability or a mental impairment” may be eligible for an exception to both the English and civics requirements.

Will there be a similar exceptions carved out for older or disabled undocumented immigrants applying for permanent residency status under the Senate plan?

Clarity. Even if the bill addressed none of issues above, the establishment of a fair, open, and transparent process by which undocumented immigrants can acquire some level of legal status will, I’m sure, be a huge relief to many immigrants served by our programs—and their families.

This is not necessarily a complete list. What did I miss?

Those in our field who feel strongly about the role of adult education in the immigration reform package should probably be getting in touch with their representatives in Congress nowparticularly those living in the states represented by the eight Senators working on this bill. I think it’s quite possible that no one will be thinking very much about the role of adult education in the bill unless folks in our field speak up. The Senate is on recess the week of February 18th—adult education advocates may want to look into whether their Senators have scheduled town meetings or similar events, and try to raise questions about the role of adult education at those meetings. Program directors might even consider trying to arrange for a visit to their program that week.

I also recommend taking a look at the President’s fact sheet on immigration reform, which outlines the key principles that he believes should be included in the immigration reform package. In this document, the President calls for a proposal that promotes “efforts to integrate immigrants into their new American communities linguistically, civically, and economically.” (my emphasis) Historically, adult education programs have been at the center of those efforts, and so the President’s words may be a good place to start for those advocating for a strong role for adult education in the changes ahead.

UPDATE: I mentioned there was a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on February 13th. For the record, there is also a House Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration tomorrow, February 5th. Because the Senate is going to be out of the gate first with a comprehensive bill, I think it’s the more significant event. For what it’s worth, the House hearing will be focused on the “current legal immigration system and ways to improve it” and “the extent to which our immigration laws have been enforced.”

About Jeff Carter

Jeff Carter is the Executive Editor and Publisher of Literacy|Policy. Jeff served as the Director of Policy and Government Affairs for ProLiteracy from February of 2010 until July of 2011. He's also the former Executive Director and President of D.C. LEARNs, Washington D.C.'s literacy coalition. He now serves as the Director of Adult Education Initiatives at Digital Promise. Jeff also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Coalition for Literacy and the Committee for Education Funding.
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