Requiring Immigrants to Learn English Sought in Bill

Senate Republicans are seeking further changes to a broad immigration bill that would require immigrants to learn English and limit their access to government benefits.

Republicans’ main demand for revisions to the measure has been stricter security on the U.S.-Mexico border in exchange for the path to citizenship Democrats want for about 11 million undocumented immigrants now in the U.S. The additional proposals are spelled out in amendments offered during the first week of Senate debate on the bill.

“The more we can toughen it up and strengthen it, without abusing people, the better off this bill’s going to be, and the better chance it has of passing,” said Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican. He has said the bill must be amended before he will vote for it.

Senate Democrats are pressing to pass a comprehensive immigration measure before July 4 that President Barack Obama made a priority after Hispanic voters gave him 71 percent support in his November re-election. Republicans are trying to reconnect with those voters, and House Speaker John Boehner has said Congress needs to resolve the immigration issue.

The Republican-led House Judiciary Committee plans to vote on two immigration-related bills next week. Panel chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, said his committee will consider a bill focused on internal enforcement and one that addresses the future flow of agricultural workers.

Undocumented Workers

The Senate bill, S. 744, would allow undocumented immigrants who pass a criminal background check, pay taxes and fines, and start learning English to apply for permanent legal status 10 years after border security improvements are made. They could seek citizenship after about another three years.

Republicans are seeking additional restrictions.

Hatch and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican co-sponsor of the bill, proposed prohibiting any non-citizen who gains legal status from obtaining welfare benefits.

Hatch and Rubio want to require immigrants to pay back taxes to qualify for temporary legal status, and would make those on the citizenship path wait five years before receiving subsidies through the 2010 health-care law. They also would specify that unauthorized employment can’t count toward eligibility for Social Security benefits.

Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, has proposed amendments to declare English the official language of the U.S. and allow employers to require workers to speak English in the workplace.

Rubio also proposed an amendment to bar undocumented immigrants from gaining permanent legal residency until they can read, write and speak English.

‘About Assimilation’

“It’s about assimilation, and I think it’s good for the immigrant,” Rubio said in an interview at the Capitol. “I think it’s good for the immigrant to know English and to be able to function in English. It’s going to expand their horizons and their ability to prosper in the economy.”

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a Washington group that supports citizenship for undocumented immigrants, described the changes Rubio and Hatch are seeking as “pernicious.” He said the proposals could unravel the bill’s bipartisan support and questioned why Rubio, as an author of the measure, would back changes that may imperil it.

“He seems to be straining to keep his conservative street cred, but, in the process, he’s threatening the bill he helped to negotiate,” Sharry said.

Rubio has said he’s seeking changes that would make the bill more acceptable to House Republicans. He said his proposal was “not a major change” because English proficiency is already required for an individual to become a U.S. citizen.

Revoking Status

Senator Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, has proposed revoking legal status from immigrants who fraudulently claimed a federal benefit or left the U.S. for more than 180 days in a year.

“If they’ve committed a fraud already, they shouldn’t be given special treatment,” Wicker said in an interview at the Capitol. He said he would “like to get to yes” on the bill and that adoption of his amendment might help.

Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, proposed requiring annual reports from the Secretary of Health and Human Services on the amount of federal benefits provided to undocumented immigrants and those with temporary legal status.

Some of the proposals may run counter to the advice of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. After meeting with House Republicans June 13, he said he advised them to shift the debate from how to deal with undocumented immigrants and toward the potential of legal immigration to fuel economic growth.

Changing Conversation

“You change the conversation from the question of illegal immigration, and you move it to how do you create an economic strategy of sustained economic growth, and the whole dynamic and conversation changes,” Bush said at an event at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

Democratic senators also are seeking changes to the bill. Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, wants to grant married same-sex couples equal treatment with heterosexual couples under the immigration law. The proposal is opposed by many Republicans.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, has said he wants to limit immigrants’ access to guns, potentially reviving a contentious debate over gun control.

Senate Debate

The Senate will resume consideration of the immigration bill on June 17. The chamber on June 13 defeated Iowa Republican Charles Grassley’s proposal to prohibit legal status for undocumented immigrants until the government shows it had “effective control” of the border for six months.

Hatch won changes to a visa program for high-skilled workers in exchange for his vote in the Judiciary Committee last month. He told reporters that New York Senator Charles Schumer, a Democratic co-sponsor of the immigration plan, pledged to help him reach a compromise on his amendments.

“He’s promised me he would work with me, and we’ll get it done,” Hatch said. “We get it done, and we can get near 70 votes or more; this is a very viable bill.”