What the Rubio Amendment Actually Does

(Updated Below)

I’ve noticed that headline writers and twitter commentators are in the habit of describing Sen. Rubio’s proposed amendment as “tightening” or “toughening” the English requirement in the immigration bill. Just to be clear: the current Senate bill already requires all non-English speaking undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. to learn English (with waivers for the disabled and the elderly, just as there are for citizenship). It is already tougher than the requirements for those applying for green cards under the current system, which does not require English proficiency.

What the current Senate bill does is recognize the fact that 70% of undocumented immigrants currently do not possess the English proficiency needed to meet citizenship-level proficiency, and that it can take hundreds of hours of instruction to attain that level of proficiency. Essentially, the Senate bill allows those individuals to move forward with an application for legal residency by demonstrating a commitment to learning English if they have not yet attained full proficiency.

Alexander Bolton, in an article about the amendment in The Hill, writes that Sen. Rubio’s amendment would strike language in the bill that allows the English proficiency requirement to be met “simply by signing up for a language course.” That is simply not the case. The bill requires individuals who lack sufficient proficiency in English to be “satisfactorily pursuing a course of study, pursuant to standards established by the Secretary of Education, in consultation with” the Secretary of Homeland Security. (my emphasis) That’s clearly more than just “signing up” for a course.

Reasonable people (i.e. not these guys) could debate whether there are ways to strengthen or clarify this provision—to better ensure that people are really learning, for example—but Sen. Rubio’s amendment simply lops it off. As I wrote yesterday, I think that is going to result in thousands of individuals deciding not to go forward with legalization, which is presumably not the Senator’s intent. Perhaps a compromise is possible that would address the Senator’s concerns without wiping out the provision altogether.

UPDATE 6/13/13: Excellent article from CLASP on the Rubio amendment here.

Rubio Amendment Dramatically Alters English Requirement for Undocumented Immigrants

(Updated below)

According to a press release issued by his office today, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), a member of the original Gang of Eight who drafted the original Senate comprehensive immigration reform bill that is about to be debated on the Senate floor (S. 744), plans to introduce an amendment today that would dramatically change a key provision in the bill that provides a legalization pathway for the nation’s 11,000 undocumented immigrants. (See this post for background on the bill.)

Under the current version of S. 744, a registered provisional immigrant (RPI) cannot earn legal permanent residency (LPR) unless they establish that he or she understands English at the level of proficiency needed for citizenship; oris 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…”

Sen. Rubio’s amendment eliminates the “course of study” option. That is, he now proposes (after presumably agreeing to the original language) to strike the provision that stipulates that the English proficiency requirement can be met by pursuing a course of study, calling it a “loophole.”

But the “course of study” option really makes a lot of sense. We know that a considerable number of undocumented immigrants living here now probably cannot meet the level of English proficiency needed for citizenship. (One expert estimates it at about 55%. See update below.) The current bill doesn’t let them off the hook—it requires them to learn English, but it recognizes that not everyone is going to be able to meet the required level of proficiency right away, and that learning English takes time. Requiring citizenship-level English to qualify for LPR status, with no option to give those with limited English skills a chance to learn, will likely discourage many undocumented immigrants with limited English skills from seeking legal registration. This would defeat one of the major purposes of the bill, which was to encourage working, law-abiding undocumented immigrants to come forward.

UPDATE: 6/11/13, 7:50PM: According to this article, Max Sevillia, director of policy and legislative affairs for the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO), agrees that the amendment would discourage unauthorized immigrants from becoming permanent legal residents:

Max Sevillia, the director of policy and legislative affairs for the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO), said the amendment would create a “chilling effect” that would discourage unauthorized immigrants from becoming permanent legal residents. Sevillia said the group’s polling shows that more than 80 percent of unauthorized immigrants say they want to be proficient in English, but that the best way to help them do that is to provide high quality English classes. “They understand that English is really the gateway to improving their lives and the lives of their family,” Sevillia said. (my emphasis)

UPDATE 6/11/13, 8:00PM: Margie McHugh of the Migration Policy Institute has estimated that about 55% of undocumented immigrants wouldn’t be able to pass the English portion of the U.S. citizenship test.