Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden on Sunday told supporters he would require illegal immigrants to learn English to gain citizenship, a controversial proposal absent from his publicly available immigration platform.
Speaking to a crowd in Iowa, Biden promised that if elected president, he would "within a matter of months" secure a path to citizenship for America's 10.5 million illegal immigrants. But, he said, that path would only be open to those who could meet certain requirements, including speaking English.
"Like every other person who has come here, they have to pass—they have to learn how to speak English, they have to demonstrate they've paid their taxes, they have to, just go down the line," Biden said. "But it's a pathway."
The English-language requirement makes no appearance in Biden's immigration platform. The discrepancy may represent the 77-year-old's infamous tendency toward slips of the tongue. But if Biden is serious about an English language requirement, the proposal could put him even more at odds with his party's left wing.
Biden's campaign did not return a request for comment.
A path to citizenship is a key part of Biden's immigration plan, in which the former vice president promises to "aggressively advocate for legislation that creates a clear roadmap to legal status and citizenship," with requirements that beneficiaries register, are up to date on their taxes, and pass a background check. Conspicuously absent is any requirement that these new citizens demonstrate English-language proficiency. The only mentions of English are promises to increase federal support for English-language learning programs.
Biden has a history of supporting English requirements. He voted for the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which required amnesty beneficiaries to demonstrate "minimal understanding" of English. In 2006, then-senator Biden said "illegal aliens" would need to learn English because nations with two languages do not do "all that well."
Biden's platform also mentions support for the 2013 Gang of Eight amnesty proposal, which included an English proficiency requirement in its path to citizenship. The former vice president alluded to the deal in his speech Sunday, saying that "John McCain and I almost got there" on immigration reform.
Although English language requirements have not made an appearance in the 2020 debate, they have historically proved controversial on the left. Democrats have in past labeled proposals to give immigration preference to English speakers or make English the national language as discriminatory and racist. During the debate over the Gang of Eight proposal, one left-leaning commentator wrote that the deal's English requirement would "exclude millions of poor, undocumented immigrants from ever getting a green card." Such rhetoric is unlikely to have softened in the intervening years in a party that has veered further left on immigration since President Donald Trump's election in 2016.
Proponents of immigration restriction, however, said little would come of Biden's seeming support for an English requirement.
"Democrats would never support denying an illegal alien amnesty for a poor score on a test," RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, told the Washington Free Beacon. "An English requirement is irrelevant—amnesty in any form not only rewards those who have violated our immigration laws but incentivizes future illegal immigration."