LatinaLista — A newly released Pew Hispanic study uncovers some startling statistics — of the 5.4 million legal immigrants from Mexico who are eligible to become citizens of the United States, more than 60 percent have not yet done so.
The main two reasons are the same criteria we are bound to see contained in any immigration reform proposal — English proficiency and high registration fees.
Among those citing personal barriers, about two-thirds (65%) say they need to learn English…. Among those who cite administrative barriers, more than nine-in-ten (94%) say the reason they have not naturalized is the cost of the naturalization application, which currently is $680 per application.
These findings should put at ease Conservatives' fears that putting the 11 million undocumented on a pathway to citizenship will result in all 11 million becoming citizens overnight. At the same time, this discovery should alert legislators, who want to get this segment of the population out of the shadows, that any real reform must meet the two most crucial needs of these immigrants — more access to English classes and better affordability for the necessary paperwork.
To pass immigration reform without acknowledging these two practicalities will only result in keeping people from registering their presence with the government — the end-goal of any immigration reform proposal.
In listening to the immigration reform measures proposed so far from the Senate and the White House, it's disturbing that most of what is proposed doesn't take into account the current realities of undocumented immigrants that will make compliance not just out of reach financially but linguistically.
Most people who will be wanting to become citizens will be doing so for more than just him/herself. That means they will be paying for applications for, at the least, one other person, if not more. If each application costs $680, without regard to age, two applications would be over $1300.
Then there is the requirement to learn English. While there are some churches, libraries and non-profits that provide free English classes, it's already been seen to not be enough to accommodate everyone who wants to learn. Chances are, that once immigration reform passes and makes English a requirement, fly-by-night English classes will be set up, either price-gouging vulnerable immigrants or outright scamming them.
To show the undocumented immigrants and the Latino constituency that Washington is approaching immigration reform in good faith, the government needs to:
1. Make anyone who wants to teach English as a Second Language be certified with so many hours of training and grant them an official certificate to be publicly displayed that they went through the specialized training. In addition, the government should ensure that anyone certified through this special program would not be allowed to charge above a certain limit, or risk being fined and their certification revoked/suspended. A web site could be set up for students to check and see what their instructors' standing is in the program.
Another option would be to allow recent college graduates, who go through the training, to be able to teach ESL to work off some of their student loan debt.
2. Congress must acknowledge that the undocumented immigrant population, by virtue of their non-legal status, are the nation's poorest of the poor. To demand that they spend thousands of dollars upfront to correct their citizenship status will cause many to weigh their options — and going broke, if they even have the money, may not be worth it to them immediately.
Payment plans where the fees can be spread out over the course of a year or more; or family plans where one price covers a family of four or five would be much more reasonable, realistic and fairer than to demand money they don't have.
The belief that 11 million undocumented immigrants are so desperate to become citizens that they won't hesitate to get in line isn't a realistic expectation, especially when data already shows that if they don't have the money or the language proficiency they would rather wait than risk losing their hard-earned money.