All indications are that the immigration reform legislation currently being drafted in the Senate is going to provide undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S. with the opportunity to apply for lawful permanent residency—but with a much more arduous set of requirements than are required by normal green card applicants. Adult education groups are particularly interested in the English language requirement (which I discussed here).
Having now had a chance to think about this for a few weeks, my thoughts on this requirement come down to two basic principles:
- A requirement to learn English in order to qualify for lawful permanent resident status shouldn’t penalize or place an unrealistic burden on those with significant learning challenges.
- Any requirement to learn English in order to qualify for lawful permanent resident status should address the increased demand for English instruction that would emerge as a result, in a way that leverages the success of adult education programs that already provide these services.
The first has to do with basic fairness and ensuring equal opportunity. A requirement to learn English in order to qualify for lawful permanent resident status shouldn’t penalize or place an unrealistic burden on those who have special learning challenges, such as:
- Those with limited education or literacy skills in their native language.
- Those who are caregivers of children and therefore may have more limited opportunities to attend English classes. Lack of childcare services is already a significant barrier that prevents many people from attending adult education classes—particularly women.
- Those who are elderly or disabled. For citizenship, those who are over a certain age and/or who have a disability may be granted an exemption from completing the English and civics tests. Similar kinds of considerations should be made for undocumented immigrants applying for the permanent resident status who are elderly/disabled.
It seems to me that consideration should be given to scrapping English proficiency altogether as a requirement and using satisfactory completion of some form of legitimate English language instruction over a certain period of time as sufficient to qualify. This would eliminate the problem of having to figure out what level of proficiency is going to count as sufficient, and it would largely (although not entirely) address the problem that the elderly/disabled may struggle to gain proficiency easily or quickly. One would still have to know English at certain level of proficiency to become a citizen (other than those who would be granted exceptions anyway).
The second basic principle is that any requirement to learn English in order to qualify for lawful permanent resident status should address the increased demand for low-cost English instruction that’s going to explode as a result, and in a way that leverages the success of adult education programs that already provide these services for free or at a limited cost. (I’m thinking here primarily of the adult English language and literacy programs funded at least in part by federal/state dollars—but also the privately funded nonprofits that are also key adult education providers in many communities.)
- While the current capacity of these programs may not be sufficient to meet new demand, it will be cheaper to leverage the existing capacity than to create new entities to provide this instruction.
- Moreover, this existing adult education system already has a track record of success in providing individuals with the English skills needed to successfully enter employment, improve their employment prospects, enroll in job training or in postsecondary education. The adult education system also has a track record in many states of providing adults with the opportunity to co-enroll in English language instruction while obtaining technical skills.
- Similarly, it doesn’t make sense for the English language requirement to establish its own measure(s) for English proficiency that does not align with those measures already in use by the adult education system in local communities.
Finally, while it’s probably not realistic to expect a big increase in federal expenditures for these programs to be included in this bill, we ought to at least strengthen what we have. Let’s encourage professional and private sector investment in expanded adult English language instruction. One way to do this would be to provide tax credits for businesses that partner with adult education programs to provide English instruction for their employees (or residents of the community)—a variation of an idea was included in the Menendez/Leahy immigration reform bill in 2010.
In addition, I can’t think of a good reason why this legislation shouldn’t include the authorization of the EL/Civics grant program under Title II of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). (WIA is the primary vehicle for federal investment in adult education in the U.S.) EL/Civics isn’t actually authorized by WIA but is a set-aside that has to be approved by Congressional appropriators every year. The lack of authorization leaves the program more vulnerable to elimination than other programs under WIA, at a time when we can least afford for that to happen.