Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Should All Immigrants Have to Learn English? Debate Rears Up Again after Rubio Proposal; Local Groups Help Provide Language Skills

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Should All Immigrants Have to Learn English? Debate Rears Up Again after Rubio Proposal; Local Groups Help Provide Language Skills

Article excerpt

Byline: Diana Greenburg

Sometimes their dreams are big - resuming a career they worked hard to achieve in their native country. Other times, their goals are small - ordering a pizza over the phone or telling the barber how to cut their hair.

They come from around the globe - the young and the old, the literate and the illiterate, the privileged and the underprivileged - to build a better life.

You hear the different languages all over the First Coast - in grocery stores, shopping centers, libraries.

English is the official language of Florida, where voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1988. Yet U.S. Census data from 2010 indicated that 2.1 million Florida residents, nearly 12 percent of the population, had limited English proficiency. The census shows that almost 10 percent of households in Duval County speak a language other than English.

With the immigration reform bill under consideration in the U.S. Senate, the debate about language is at the forefront. Politicians have been blasted by constituents who are not only upset about undocumented workers, but also that speaking English is not a requirement. Many say that newcomers who don't learn English would gather in "linguistic ghettos" and partake of benefits afforded Americans without being productive.

"Here in America, you can go to a place like downtown Miami and see signs that say 'English is spoken here,' " Isabelle Miller, a retired secretary in Boynton Beach, told the Sun-Sentinel. "And how much money are we paying to have everything that comes from the government written in two languages? We are paying taxes through the nose because they don't know English."

Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the Gang of Eight senators who crafted the immigration bill, has introduced an amendment that requires immigrants to be proficient in English before obtaining permanent residency status. Currently, only those seeking citizenship must show proficiency in English. The amendment would strengthen the bill that now says that immigrants seeking a "green card" - denoting permanent resident status - would only have to show they are enrolled in an English language course.

But his effort provoked outrage in places such as South Florida. It ALSO riled immigrant advocates who support the bill - but failed to satisfy some conservatives who oppose it. Both sides see Rubio's amendment as a distraction, or an example of political posturing, the Sun-Sentinel reported.

"To me, it's a sign of more games," Melissa McGuire-Maniau, 36, of Winter Park, a board member of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, told the newspaper. "Why create more hurdles? It's like they want to create this obstacle course that bars more and more people from adjusting [their immigration status].

"Yeah, we do need to learn English. OK, great. But now you are creating a bigger litmus test."

DUVAL'S NEWCOMERS

Duval County welcomes its share of foreign-born newcomers - from 2007 to 2011, the numbers moving here increased by 9 percent. No one charts statistics on exactly how many residents do not speak English; in the Duval school system as of 2012, 73 languages are spoken by students and 3 percent, or 4,225, are English language learners.

Sparking debate is the cost of providing language classes. Since immigrants are from many countries, translation to English from a multitude of languages would likely cost millions.

Interesting research shows that recent immigrants are less likely to learn English than those who came before them. The researcher, Harvard economist George Borjas, says this could be because large numbers of earlier immigrants from the same countries have developed a "welcoming ethnic enclave," reducing the need for the new group to learn English. Research has shown that immigrants do better economically and socially when they learn English, yet the incentives for them to do so may be decreasing. …

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