The Role of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in Preparing New Citizens

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In 2014, Congress enacted the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) to modernize adult education and workforce training. For many years, these two areas had been treated separately in federal policymaking and adults with limited English proficiency were frequently stuck in English classes for years before they could advance to developing any skills. Recognizing this disconnect, WIOA borrowed models from many community groups, including NCLR Affiliates, that combined English as a second language and job training into one program. However, many immigrants want to learn English for reasons other than to find a job, including like becoming a U.S. citizen. Both WIOA and proposed rules from the Department of Education—the agency responsible for regulating adult learning programs—make clear that funding must support workforce outcomes and cannot be used for other adult learning needs.

Prioritizing English learning in support of workforce-related goals in WIOA matters for the future of what is commonly referred to as EL Civics. This program funded community-based organizations to provide English and civics instruction for those seeking to naturalize. WIOA included a version of EL Civics, the integrated English literacy and civics education (IELCE) program, that maintains the original purpose of providing English language instruction on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. However, states must provide the federal government with data on job placement and earnings to receive funding. In addition, the Department of Education’s proposed rules on IELCE indicate that programs “must be delivered in combination with integrated education and training services.” Together, these factors have led many to worry that tying IELCE to WIOA will make it difficult to maintain the program’s original intent—providing citizenship instruction.

wioa-logoIn response to confusion from adult education and immigrant rights advocates, the Department of Education recently issued an FAQ to clarify the use of funds for IELCE. The FAQ says funds may be used for teaching English for naturalization purposes, and these programs do not need to be tied to workforce education. However, this response does not address other provisions in the law and in the proposed regulations, which create disincentives for states to continue supporting traditional EL Civics. For example, the accountability system to determine if states are using funds appropriately only rewards programs that can demonstrate success in job placement. As a result, it seems unlikely that states will distribute IELCE funds for civic-related purposes. In fiscal year 2015 alone, the Department of Education allocated roughly $71 million to states for EL Civics. Once WIOA is fully implemented, this funding will likely be redirected to purposes other than citizenship preparation.

The lack of adequate funding for English language instruction for non-workforce outcomes can have a profound effect on the Latino community. There are roughly 8.8 million lawful permanent residents who are eligible to naturalize, including about three million of Mexican or Central American origin. Of those eligible to naturalize, three million speak little or no English, and these numbers are particularly high within Latino communities. Yet, the English required to become a citizen is advanced and many seek assistance from community-based organizations. Without a significant investment in the adult education system to teach English for non-workforce outcomes like naturalization, these immigrants will not have the resources needed to become fully integrated into American life.

For this reason, as the Department of Education moves forward with its implementation of WIOA, it should consider citizenship an intermediary outcome as part of a workforce development process. A number of employment opportunities are limited to citizens and research has shown that citizens earn on average 10 percent more than non-citizens. Without a creative solution linking naturalization to job acquisition, service providers are likely to lose their federal funds, placing citizenship out of reach for too many people.

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