Editorial: Permanent Residents Should Speak English

(Photo by Elvert Barnes, Flickr Creative Commons License)

(Photo by Elvert Barnes, Flickr Creative Commons License)

An amendment to the immigration reform bill, introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), makes permanent residency for undocumented immigrants dependent on their command of English. It has raised controversy, but it is not a totally ridiculous measure.

Some of the provisions of the immigration bill do raise doubts, considering that the number of people attempting to cross the border illegally is at a record low. Among the items criticized: the plan to double the border patrol officers from the current 21,000 and to spend $3 billion on new technologies. Quite amazing too is the plan to construct several hundred additional miles of fence along the Mexican-American border.

The command of English, however, is quite a different thing.

Currently, only immigrants applying for citizenship are obliged to pass the English exam. People who have been legal residents for over 15 years and are over 55 years old are exempt from the examination.

The amendment has hardly raised any protests in the Polish-American community.

According to Bozena Mazinska, director of the immigration program at the Polish-Slavic Center, the citizenship language exam is not too difficult and does not pose a big problem for Polish immigrants. It would be hard to expect the language exam for a green card to be more difficult.

Nevertheless, there is concern that an estimated 55 percent of the 11 million undocumented immigrants could not cope with the proposed English exam, which they would have to take in 10 years. The consequence of failing the exam is not yet clear.

It’s true there is a shortage of teachers of English, available schools and language courses for all undocumented immigrants, who can’t always afford to pay for their education. What is more, the immigration bill allocates only $150 million for language instruction, legal assistance and building public awareness.

If the Florida senator’s proposal is to be taken seriously, billions of dollars would have to be spent on language training. It has been calculated that in order to reach the so called third level of English proficiency, one has to study about 300 hours, which could cost $3,300.

Despite the obstacles, undocumented immigrants should not treat the necessity to learn English as a burden, but rather as an incentive to improve their living conditions.

Immigrants from  numerous communities, especially Latinos, can practically go without knowing English in their daily lives. But by not learning English, immigrants sentence themselves to being second class citizens

– not only because of the limited access to American education and culture, but also for financial reasons.

Without the knowledge of English, immigrants limit themselves to the more difficult and lowering paying jobs. Even if learning English may cost some money, immigrants should not treat it as an expense but as an investment in a better future.

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