North Carolina Justice Center on the GED

I’ve been trying to keep a special eye on policy papers outside the adult education world related to the GED revamp, particularly those that come at the issue from a civil rights, social justice, or economic policy point of view. Here’s one from the North Carolina Justice Center that came out back in November that I missed. It’s a good summary of the potential challenges that the new test may pose to low-income adults. It closes with a critical point:

While these challenges are significant, the changes to the GED test also offer an opportunity for states to reflect on ways to better meet the needs of this target population. (my emphasis)

This has been a point that I’ve been stressing (I hope) since the Pearson VUE partnership spurred several states to look for GED alternatives last year. Whatever you think of the GED and its new competitors, the rapid evolution of the HSE testing marketplace does appear to be forcing policymakers and state officials outside of the adult education office to spend some time actually thinking about the needs of this population. Whether this leads to more investment in adult education and/or policies designed to assist more adult learners to succeed is still an open question.

h/t Adrienne Harreveld

Justice in Sequesterland

From a WBUR interview with Miriam Conrad, who heads the federal public defenders office for Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, talking about the impact of sequester cuts at her office, where she may have to cut more than a quarter of their staff in about a month:

The other problem is, even in the cases that we keep, if we don’t have as many investigators and paralegals to help us prepare the case, there are going to be delays. And the longer there are delays the longer people who are held in custody in jail, pending trial, are going to stay in jail at an approximate cost of $2,000 a month. And you’re likely to have cases in which defendants say that their speedy trial rights have been violated, and you’ll see motions to dismiss.

Do these cuts affect prosecutors as well?

No.

Why not?

Well, that’s a great question. You can ask Congress that question. The U.S. attorney’s office this year did not have any furlough days. And, in fact, the Senate Appropriations Committee recently approved an increase of I think it was $79 million for U.S. attorneys offices with the express purpose of bringing more criminal cases in federal court. Of course, the more cases you have, the more lawyers you need on the defense side. And somehow, Congress has not joined the two and has not recognized that actually providing a defense is part of the cost of prosecuting a federal case. (my emphasis)

Addressing Inequality Through Education

Jared Bernstein, writing for the New York Times’ Economix blog, responding to Miles Corak’s recent commentary on inequality, arguing that he doesn’t go far enough in his policy recommendations:

It’s a common default for economists and policy makers to present a trenchant analysis of a problem with many deep roots and then conclude, “That’s why we need better education and skill development.”

The problem is that a central thesis of the inequality/mobility nexus is that skills alone won’t crack it. Again, no question that overcoming the barriers that block lower-income children from achieving their intellectual (and economically productive) potential is an essential part of this, but if you don’t deal with the politics — really, the power — you’ll end up with a bunch more children who fortunately have gone a lot further in their personal development, but remain stuck in or near the income decile of their birth. (my emphasis)

I think that’s true, and I also had another thought.

When you look at the history of adult literacy in the U.S., you’ll find that for most of that history, adult literacy education was mainly focused on increasing the political agency of the individuals being taught. Only over the last 20-25 years or so (as adult education has become somewhat more institutionalized in schools and community colleges) has the focus shifted (at least in the policy arena) to more of an emphasis on employment and training. I realized, reading this commentary, that my discomfort with the pre-K movement stems not just from the fact that proponents often brush aside the fundamental pedagogical role that parents and the home environment play in children’s literacy development. That’s a problem to be sure, but the more fundamental problem with ignoring parents and parents’ education—particularly the parents of the poor—is that it fails to acknowledge or address the political agency of those parents—political agency needed in order to bring about meaningful political change.

Those who argue that education is not enough to solve the inequality problem without additional political change raise some valid points. But education does play a role in developing the critical thinking and self-reflection needed to bring about political changes. Education can do more than just help people reach their economic potential, it can also play a bigger role in bringing about the political changes Bernstein (and others) suggest.

Is the Allegory of the Cave a parenting skill? I suspect some would argue that it is.

Remember: Senate Immigration Bill Already Requires Undocumented Immigrants to Learn English—Here’s How It Works

It appears that Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) amendment to the Senate’s immigration reform bill, which would change the way the English proficiency requirement would for undocumented immigrants choosing to become legal residents, may be voted on today.

I just want to review again the way the current bill works, and explain why the Rubio amendment doesn’t really make any sense.

Under the Senate bill, currently undocumented immigrants in the U.S. would be eligible to apply for “Registered Provisional Immigrant” (RPI) status if they meet certain criteria (e.g. have never been convicted of a felony, entered the U.S. before 2012 and have not left the country since then, etc.) and pay a $500 fee.

An undocumented immigrant who attains RPI status would then be considered lawfully present in the U.S. He/she would not be subject to deportation, would be able to legally work here, and be able to travel freely outside of the country. However, RPIs would not be eligible for federal means-tested public benefits (such as non-emergency Medicaid). This is important, and one of the reasons why I’ll argue later that the Rubio amendment is a bad idea.

The bill then establishes a minimum thirteen-year pathway to earned citizenship, which includes a number of benchmarks related to employment, income, and knowledge of English language, U.S. history and civics.

First, after six years, an RPI can renew their status if:

  • They pay the fee again; and
  • They continue to meet the original eligibility requirements; and
  • They establish that they have been continuously employed (unemployed no more than 60 consecutive days at a time); or
    • That they have income or resources at or above 100 percent of the Federal poverty level; or
    • Are enrolled in “full-time” education and training.

Secondly, after ten years, (The pathway to LPR status is a bit shorter—five years—for DREAM Act-eligible RPIs), an RPI can adjust to Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) status (i.e., become a “green card” holder), but to do so requires another fee ($1000 this time) and the following:

  • Again, they have to have been continuously employed (unemployed no more than 60 consecutive days at a time); or
    • That they have income or resources at or above 100 percent of the Federal poverty level; or
    • Are enrolled in “full-time” education and training;
  • And, in addition, (putting aside some exceptions for the elderly/disabled), they must demonstrate the level of English proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history/civics that is required for citizenship or demonstrate that they are satisfactorily pursuing a course of study, pursuant to standards established by the Secretary of Education, in consultation with the Secretary, to achieve an understanding of English and knowledge and understanding of the history and Government of the United States, as described in section 312(a)” (i.e. the proficiency level required for citizenship in current immigration law. See page 983 of the bill as reported out of the Senate for the full text.) This is a lot more than just signing up for a course—note that you have to show that you are actually making progress. But the Rubio amendment would remove enrollment in a course of study as sufficient to meet this benchmark.

A couple of key points:

  • The RPI renewal step is important: since you can’t apply for LPR status until ten years have passed, all undocumented immigrants who acquire RPI status would in fact have to renew it if they want to stay on track to become LPRs.
  • LPRs will be eligible for federal means-tested benefits, but not until they have been LPRs for five years.
  • After three years as an LPR, individuals would be permitted to apply for U.S. citizenship—that’s why it’s a minimum a thirteen-year process from registration to citizenship.
  • None of the pathway to citizenship provisions kick in at all—that is, no unauthorized immigrant would be permitted to gain lawful status of any kind—until the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) certifies that the border security goals in the bill have been met.
  • Perhaps the most important point: the Senate bill as it now stands requires all undocumented immigrants to learn English. It allows people to adjust to legal residency status before they get to the level of English proficiency needed for citizenship, but they still have to show that they are actually learning the language, something that current green card applicants do not have to do.

I thought it was important to run through all this in order to explain what I think the consequences of the Rubio amendment would be. It’s pretty clear to me that the bill’s authors (a group that included Sen. Rubio, in fact) were trying to strike a balance between the practical reality that we need to find a way to legalize the undocumented immigrants that are here (and also, importantly, encourage them to legalize), yet establish some kind of punitive measures against them for coming here illegally in the first place. You can argue about whether that was the right way to balance things—and whether it was tipped too much toward the punitive or towards helping people to integrate—but however you come out on that, I think it’s clear that this was the balancing they were trying to work out. It’s a balance that involves issues of not just fairness and justice but also pragmatic policy concerns—and politics.

And it’s a difficult, delicate balance that can be thrown off easily. The problem with the Rubio amendment, in my opinion, is that it does just that—it pushes the punitive end too far and throws off the pragmatic balance that was struck in the original provision.

If we assume that the experts are correct, and well over half of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country have an English proficiency level below what’s needed to achieve legal residency under this bill, it seems reasonable to assume that a substantial number are well below that level and may not be highly literate in their native language (as is increasingly the case among Spanish-speaking immigrants). I think it’s also reasonable to assume that many of these folks are working in relatively low-paying jobs. And, as discussed above, they are ineligible for federal benefits, like medicaid.

It seems to me that, at the end of the day, for comprehensive immigration reform to be considered a success, we want to have moved most of the undocumented population to legal resident status. It’s legal residents who put down roots, build careers, buy homes, and in most cases, become citizens. I understand that some want it to be a long and difficult pathway for those who came and stayed here illegally, but there’s a point at which you can make it so difficult that it’s no longer feasible for a lot of people. The Senate bill already established a pretty lengthy path. But by requiring absolute English proficiency for LPR status, we’d be moving the goalpost way down the field for many. I know ten years (the earliest one could apply for a green card) seems like a long time, but for those with very limited English, who are working full-time (and remember, most of them will have to be in order to maintain their lawful status under this bill)—in addition to whatever other family responsibilities they may have—it won’t be that easy to carve out the time needed to learn English at that level of proficiency. For many, there will not be a class available, or if there is they will be facing long waiting lists.

As a result, I think Sen. Rubio’s amendment would probably increase the probability that a large proportion of current undocumented people who are living in poverty will stay that way for a longer period. However much you may personally dislike the idea that people in the country speak a language you don’t understand, (which, somehow, other well-off democratic societies seem to manage reasonably well), it’s hard to understand the wisdom of setting up a legalization process that is going to likely confine millions of people to a life where they can’t get ahead.

As I wrote earlier this week, reasonable people could argue that the “course of study” langauge in the bill was too vague (I think it was fine, but that’s just my opinion). If that’s the case, the solution is to work to improve the language—perhaps there are more rigorous standards that could be written into the law, for example. But lopping it off completely is applying a blunt instrument where fine-tuning is needed. And frankly, I don’t get why it makes sense even from a political perspective. The “English only” crowd should be pleased with this bill as it stands, because it requires people to at least be learning English in order to become a legal resident—a requirement that has never before existed for those seeking a green card.

Again, if you don’t like this amendment, today is the day to call your Senator.