Rubio introduces amendment to toughen English requirement for immigrants

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida announced Tuesday he will introduce an amendment to the immigration reform bill that would require all immigrants to prove they were proficient in English before they could receive permanent legal immigration status.

Rubio's amendment would significantly change the sweeping bill and would make it harder for millions of immigrants to get on the path to citizenship. It would remove language from the bill that would have also allowed immigrants to gain green cards if they enrolled in a government-approved English course, a provision that Rubio called a "loophole."

“This is one of the bill’s shortcomings that came to light, which we can now fix," Rubio said in a statement.

A tea party favorite of Cuban descent, Rubio has been key in drawing conservative support to the bill, which he helped draft as part of the bipartisan Gang of Eight. But since then, Rubio has said the bill must be reworked on border security and other issues before he will vote for it.

At least one anti-immigration reform group is running ads targeting senators for the provision, criticizing the bill for having "no requirement" that immigrants learn English before gaining legalization.

The new requirement could mean a significantly longer wait time for citizenship for the country's estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants. Experts estimate that about 55 percent of adult unauthorized immigrants would not be able to pass the English portion of the U.S. citizenship test if they took it today. It takes about 600 hours of instruction, on average, for someone to move from the bottom levels of English understanding to a conversational level. The bill currently sets aside $100 million in federal funds for English instruction and other programs to help newly legalized immigrants integrate.

Immigrants who speak English well earn on average between 10 and 24 percent more than immigrants who don't, according to several studies. Currently, immigrants must pass an English test to become citizens, but do not have to prove English proficiency to gain permanent residence, also referred to as a green card. The 1986 immigration legalization bill required immigrants to take 40 hours of English classes before gaining green cards, which critics said was inadequate.

Under the reform bill, immigrants gain temporary legal status for up to 12 years if they passed a background check and paid fines, but then would have to apply for permanent legal status, which would lead to citizenship after five years. It's unclear what would happen to immigrants who were unable to pass the English test within the 12-year period of temporary legal status.

"This is going to keep millions of people from getting on a path to citizenship," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group America's Voice. "The Senate bill is carefully negotiated … When you start to mess around with the core elements of it you're messing around with the whole compromise."

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.

Rubio "should have introduced an amendment to increase the federal support and make that section more robust as opposed to creating obstacles," Sevillia said