Lobbying for Literacy

State Advocacy 2013The National Council of State Directors of Adult Education recently released the results of a survey on the use of paid lobbyists for adult education  at the state level.

Eight states reported using paid lobbyists. In all of those states, lobbyists are funded by the state adult education professional association. In six of those states, they work for those associations directly. In the other two states, the associations pay for lobbying services by contributing to coalitions that were organized to advocate for a broader range of education and human service programs.

I suspect the actual number of broad-based coalitions that at least do some advocacy that’s at least relevant to adult education funding or policy is actually a bit larger—even if they don’t do it directly. This survey was apparently focused on direct lobbying for adult education. But most statewide coalitions that advocate for funding for human services or education probably at least nominally include adult education as one of those services. It may be that those coalitions are not actively engaging policymakers on the issue of adult education, and/or may not really be working with adult education advocates in the state to integrate the need for adult education into their talking points. Raising the profile of adult education within these kinds of broad advocacy coalitions is a subject worthy of further discussion, I think.

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.

NCL Action Alert on the Rubio Amendment

If you have been reading this blog recently, you know that Sen. Marco Rubio (D-FL) has  introduced an amendment to the Senate immigration reform bill, S. 744, (a bill that he co-authored) that would require undocumented immigrants applying for legal residency to prove that they know English, civics and U.S. history at the level currently required only for those applying for full citizenship. The bill as reported out of committee requires either proof of proficiency at that level or documented evidence of satisfactory progress in a course of study that will eventually lead to that level of proficiency.

For those interested in asking their Senator to vote against the amendment, the National Coalition for Literacy (NCL) has posted this action alert. 

Hurry though: the Senate will begin voting on amendments tomorrow, and it is possible that Sen. Rubio’s amendment will be taken up as soon as then.

Self-Promotion Sunday

The Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of (mostly) national educational groups, released their annual response to the President’s 2014 budget proposal released on May 29th. (It was delayed due to the fact that the President’s budget was delayed.) This book is delivered to every member of Congress.

The section on the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA), which I wrote (hence the self-promotion) on behalf of the National Coalition for Literacy, is on page 133 at this link (or you can just click here for the AEFLA section alone). It’s really more of a revision/edit of last year’s section. This year we also included a short anecdote, contributed by another NCL member, to start things off, which hopefully provides readers with a sense of what this funding actually means to people.

Anyway, I wanted to mention it here because I figured that some of you may find a quick summary of adult literacy funding under AEFLA (i.e. Title II of WIA) to be useful in your own advocacy efforts.

It also gives me a chance to recommend the CEF book, which really serves as much more than just a response to the President’s budget—it includes a history of education funding over the last ten years for nearly every federal education program, and includes lots of charts and graphs making the case for the federal investment in education.