No Matter the Cost, English-Language Requirements Aren't Going Anywhere

Matt Berman
National Journal

In a sweeping new program to slash the welfare state, a government announced a statute on Wednesday that will prevent people who are not proficient in English—or at least enrolled in English language classes—from drawing unemployment benefits. This isn't happening in the United States. This is a British proposal, announced in the United Kingdom, by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.

But the emphasis on encouraging new residents to speak English isn't just a British thing: It's ingrained in the comprehensive immigration-reform bill that the Senate may pass Thursday, and it's furthered by a big amendment that could go up for a vote from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

The new rule in the U.K. is pretty straightforward: As part of a program designed to cut £350 million in welfare spending in 2015-16, U.K. residents will not be able to receive unemployment benefits unless they are either proficient in English or enrolled in English language classes. The minimum level of language proficiency in the U.K. is that of a 9-year-old native.

In the U.S., as part of the Senate's immigration bill, to receive a green card for permanent residency, immigrants must be either proficient in English or be taking English language classes. Under current law, English proficiency is required only to gain citizenship. Immigrants only need to have "developing" language skills to be considered proficient.

Rubio, however, is trying to make the English requirements in the Senate bill significantly stricter. He introduced an amendment that would require green-card recipients to be proficient in English—not just taking classes to get there. The fate of that amendment in the Senate isn't clear, but it could be resolved Thursday.

It's not that non-English speaking immigrants in the U.S. don't want to speak English. It's just that it can be quite expensive. Unlike in the U.K., permanent-residency seekers have to pay for the classes required to gain proficiency out-of-pocket. As Gabriel Arana writes in the American Prospect, these classes, at an average of $10 an hour, cost about $3,300 for one person to gain English language proficiency. If Rubio's amendment passes, this cost will have to be paid in full before a non-English speaker is able to obtain permanent residency.

In both the U.K. and the U.S., politics is at the center of these English-language proposals. In Britain, the coalition government headed by the Conservatives is getting pushed to the right by the upstart, anti-immigrant UK Independence Party. Chancellor Osbourne's welfare proposals go into effect in 2015, a likely election year. Paradoxically, though, the language requirement that is part of the welfare cut may actually result in greater spending for the U.K. government, as it currently picks up the tab for basic English classes. That cost is currently £50 million annually, and increasing it may not bolster the Conservatives' pro-austerity political argument.

In the U.S., support for English-language requirements is still very popular among Republicans and independents. A new Pew study found that 86 percent of Republicans and 77 percent of independents feel that immigration legislation "should require undocumented immigrants to show they can speak and understand English" to obtain legal status. Eighty percent of moderate and conservative Democrats feel the same way, while liberal Democrats are split 50-49 percent in support versus opposition to the requirement. For Rubio, who is eyeing a 2016 presidential run, being out-front on this issue isn't a bad place to be.

While language requirements have largely been on the back burner of late, there's still strong political will behind the push for English—no matter the cost.