Should Immigrants Be Required to Learn English?

A provision of the proposed immigration legislation would require immigrants to prove they're learning English before they can become permanent residents. Ray Suarez gets debate on the issue from Georgetown University's Barbara Mujica and Max Sevillia of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.


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RAY SUAREZ: And we turn to the major political issue on Capitol Hill.

With a Fourth of July recess in mind, senators are speeding toward a Monday vote on a border security deal, as part of a proposed bipartisan overhaul of the nation's immigration system.

The compromise was formally introduced today, after Republicans Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota worked out final details.

SEN. JOHN HOEVEN, R-N.D.: This is about securing the border first and doing comprehensive immigration reform and doing it right.

RAY SUAREZ: The proposal was billed as a border surge. It would nearly double the number of Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico boundary and erect some 700 miles of new fencing, all at a cost of more than $30 billion dollars over 10 years.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, some nine million people could receive provisional legal status. They'd have to wait for permanent status until the security measures are completed. The compromise quickly picked up support from five Republicans who had been undecided on the immigration bill. Others, including Jeff Sessions of Alabama, insisted the legislation still doesn't go far enough.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS, R-Ala.: If you're holding a bucket of water and it's got a bunch of holes in it, and you close one of the holes, all the water's still going to run out of the bucket. There are other problems with the legislation.

RAY SUAREZ: The Senate's Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, brushed aside the criticism, and called a key procedural vote for Monday evening.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: This amendment will put to rest any remaining credible concerns about the border, about border security. The opposition of a small group is not going to stop this bill from moving forward.

RAY SUAREZ: Reid aims to finish work on the bill next week, before the July 4 recess. Meanwhile, the House is crafting its own bill focused entirely on border enforcement.

Now more on another provision of the Senate bill. The legislation calls for immigrants to prove they're learning English before they can become permanent residents. Florida Republican Marco Rubio has proposed an amendment requiring immigrants to be proficient in English and pass a civics test. Under current law, only applicants for U.S. citizenship, not those applying for green cards, must prove English proficiency.

For a debate on that issue, we turn to Barbara Mujica, a professor of Spanish literature at Georgetown University, and Max Sevillia of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, NALEO.

I spoke to them recently as part of our ongoing series “Inside Immigration Reform.”

Max, currently, if you want to become a legal resident, is there any language requirement at all?

MAX SEVILLIA, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials: No, there's not.

There's a language requirement vis-a-vis, as you were saying, naturalizing and becoming a U.S. citizen. And what Sen. Rubio is proposing, it actually goes contrary to the current proposal, bipartisan proposal, that already calls for people to actually learn English. And it would make it to unique to this undocumented community going through a path to legalization and not a requirement of any other immigrants attempting to get a green card.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, the Senate proposal currently recommends that people trying to become legal residents demonstrate they're learning English. Is that a useful advancement on current law?

BARBARA MUJICA, Georgetown University: I think it's a useful advancement.

What I like about the amendment that Marco Rubio is proposing is that it provides another incentive for people to improve their English. Having proficiency doesn't mean that you have to speak English like a native speaker. In 1980, we had one percent of the population of foreign-born residents of the United States who said that they didn't know any English at all.

Now we have 8.1 percent of the foreign-born residents who say that they no English at all. But 51 percent of them say that they don't know English very well. And ...

RAY SUAREZ: But isn't that some of the difference in the both the number and the percentage that the average foreign-born person in the United States in 1980 had been in the country longer than the average foreign-born person today? We have had a large number of immigrants arrive in the country in a fairly short period of time.

BARBARA MUJICA: Yes.

But I think that what Rubio is proposing is that before people could apply for the green card, they would have had to be in the country a while, because he set up a number of steps that they have to follow in order to get their green card. They have to pay back taxes. They have to go to the back of the line.

And they have to prove that they have worked in the United States. They have to show a work history. And in addition to that, they have to show proficiency in English and knowledge, some knowledge of American civics.

MAX SEVILLIA: If I may, we're not getting to the core of the issue.

The current bipartisan proposal actually incentivizes individuals, immigrants, to learn English. It now gives them the option of either passing an exam and showing English proficiency or taking -- enrolling in a course.

The Rubio amendment, Sen. Rubio's amendment doesn't provide any tools to empower people to actually learn English and meet this added demand. Therefore, what it's doing, it's actually filtering down and creating an impediment, a barrier for immigrants to actually continue to move forward in the path to legalization.

We know from experts right now that approximately 5.5 -- approximately 55 percent of individuals, anywhere between four million to six million undocumented, will currently not pass the sort of exam that Rubio is trying to impose at this time after 10 years. Therefore, what we support would be for tools to empower, to actually provide English proficiency and opportunities for people to learn English.

There is no need to incentivize the immigrant population. They know that, if they learn English, they earn more money.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, does this take us to someplace different from what faced earlier generations of immigrants? People came to this country from ...

BARBARA MUJICA: Well, I would like to -- may I respond?

RAY SUAREZ: Yes, go ahead.

BARBARA MUJICA: I think we agree on a number of things.

I think one of the problems that we're facing right now is that we don't have enough classes available. We don't have enough teachers available. We're telling people that they have to learn English, but we really have to provide the mechanism by which they would learn English. So I think, in that sense, Max and I agree.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, there's money -- there's money in the bill. Is it enough?

MAX SEVILLIA: Very little money.

BARBARA MUJICA: It's not enough.

MAX SEVILLIA: It's about $150 million dollars total for a number of opportunities for legal services, for English learning, for public awareness.

It's certainly not enough. We're talking about billions of dollars if we were to truly look to reach the sort of requirement that Senator Rubio is mandating.

RAY SUAREZ: OK.

So, Professor, if you support the language requirement, you would want, what, more resources.

BARBARA MUJICA: I would want courses. I would want -- yes, I would want more resources allocated to that.

I think it's really hard, maybe impossible, to project what will happen, who will pass this exam and who won't pass this exam. The exam has to be created. It has to be geared toward the reality of these people who will be taking it. We can't ask for fluency. That's not realistic. I think -- I don't see this as an impediment. I see it as an opportunity.

This is -- I see it as an incentive that will encourage people to learn English, and when they learn English, they will have an opportunity to get their green card. This seems like a very positive thing to me.

MAX SEVILLIA: The Rubio amendment takes away the belief in the immigrant that he or she wants to actually learn English, because it denies them their good faith effort to engage in a course that teaches them English.

And then again, this is -- this amendment is very particular to the undocumented community. It's the only community going through the immigration process and attempting to become legal permanent residents that will be required to pass this English proficiency exam. It wouldn't apply to agricultural workers. It wouldn't apply to adults going through the business process. It would be unique to these undocumented communities that will be RPIs.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me just close with this simple question.

BARBARA MUJICA: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: It takes what's now a requirement if you would like to become a citizen of the United States and moves it back one step to becoming a permanent resident of the United States. Is that a desirable thing? Is it a workable thing?

BARBARA MUJICA: I think it's a desirable thing, because, as Max has said, people need to learn English. We have statistics that show that when -- that people when immigrants know English, they earn twice what people who don't know English earn.

It's desirable. And people who -- immigrants who know English are making more or less the same hourly salary as native-born Americans or naturalized citizens.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Mujica, Max Sevillia, that you both.

Online, you can view our entire portfolio of stories on this issue. Watch my discussion series examining the legislation, and track the debate on our Immigration page.