Candidates Promise Immigrants Will Learn English, Pay Fines—Not Gonna Happen

Published on November 19th, 2015

By Joe Guzzardi
November 13, 2013
After the Republican presidential candidates debated in Milwaukee, immigration—always an emotional topic—turned white-hot. Some endorsed strict enforcement of current immigration laws. Others said enforcement and its ultimate consequence, deportation, would be too harsh and impossible to effectively carry out. President Obama chimed in that deporting illegal immigrants is “not who we are.”
Non-enforcement candidates’ fallback position is that legalization and a possible path to citizenship would be contingent on illegal immigrants learning English and paying a fine. But take it from someone who knows from personal experience—me—neither learning English nor paying fines will happen, even if those conditions are part of a new law.
In the mid-1980s, just as President Ronald Regan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) became law, I moved back to my native California from Seattle, and changed careers from banker to teacher. I got my credential, and took a job as an English as a Second Language instructor to adults in California’s San Joaquin Valley.
IRCA’s requirements included a provision that to qualify for a green card, illegal immigrants would have to spend 40 hours in classroom English instruction. Suddenly, my classes went from half-full to overflowing.
As a teaching newcomer and also as someone who knew nothing about immigration, I was delighted with the turn out. How wonderful, I thought, that prospective U.S. citizens were so eager to learn English. My enthusiasm didn’t last long. When students completed exactly 40 hours, they presented their INS forms for my confirming signature. At first, I balked. In the fine print, the form plainly stated that the student had to demonstrate a mastery of conversational English and a fundamental knowledge of U.S. history and government.
But most of my students couldn’t understand or answer the most basic questions: “When did you arrive in the U.S.?” and “Where is the capital of the U.S.?” I refused to sign a federal document that made a false statement. Instead, I suggested to some students that they remain in class. After all, I reasoned, spending a few extra hours in Adult Ed learning your new country’s language would have long-lasting benefits.
Soon, I had another awakening. I received a telephone call from an INS official asking me why I wasn’t signing the forms. When I explained, he responded curtly: “Sign them.” My immigrant students, probably prompted by advocacy groups, had complained. With my signature on their forms, instead of returning for the extra instruction that would have helped them in their future lives, the students stopped coming. After a few months, the last of the amnesty crowd completed their minimum requirement. Our classes dwindled back down to their earlier levels.
As for fines, fees or penalties, only the most naïve voters could believe that they would ever be collected. The failed 2013 Gang of Eight Senate bill showed multiple ways immigrants could escape paying fines. One section gave the Homeland Security Secretary, then Janet Napolitano, the power to reduce fees and to exempt “classes of individuals.” Currently, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offers fee-waivers to certain immigrants, pursuant to the Obama administration’s 2010 decision to excuse many immigrants from so called mandatory monetary penalties.
History should guide the candidates’ immigration policy. Reagan’s Attorney General and long-time confidant Edwin Meese said that the president told him that IRCA was his “biggest mistake.” Advocates promised Reagan that in exchange for amnesty, he would get vigorous internal enforcement and shut-down-tight border security. In the end, most of the nation’s three million aliens got amnesty, but border security and internal enforcement never happened.
Back then, promises were broken just as they would be again today.

Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow. Contact him at [email protected]

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