WEST MIAMI — Within two square blocks, residents of this small city next to Miami can buy groceries, play bingo, talk to their mail carrier, get liposuction surgery — and even renew their US passports — without hearing or speaking a syllable of English. A command of Spanish, in fact, is critical to civic life, more so than almost anywhere else in the United States.
Yet the city’s most prominent political son, Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, has been attempting to use his position at the fulcrum of America’s immigration debate to toughen a requirement that immigrants learn English if they want to stay on a path to citizenship.
Rubio’s efforts, despite the linguistic realities of his own hometown and other Hispanic neighborhoods from Boston to Los Angeles, underscore the deep tensions within the Republican Party as it struggles to coalesce around legislation to overhaul the immigration system.
Tea Party activists who once celebrated Rubio are angry that he has signed on to what they consider immigration “amnesty” efforts at all; to many of them, no path to citizenship is acceptable for those who broke the law when they moved here. They booed when his name was mentioned last week at a rally against the immigration bill held outside the Capitol.
But others in the GOP see his embrace of overhauling immigration as a refreshing — and politically wise — change from the tough line Mitt Romney took in the 2012 presidential primary contest, a position seen as costing Romney considerable Latino support.
“You see Senator Rubio dancing and trying to appease two masters,” said Fernand Amandi, a national pollster of Hispanics who has worked primarily with Democrats. “The Tea Party and the base which propelled him into office, and the Hispanic community he needs to run for president.”
Party leaders are wrestling with the same conflict. There was an open threat of a revolt against House Speaker John Boehner last week as conservative House members worried that the Republican would cut a deal with the Senate without consent of his party’s most skeptical lawmakers. Boehner promised not to vote on a measure in the House without majority Republican support. Meanwhile, the bill’s support grew significantly last week in the Senate after a commitment to infuse billions of dollars on a “border surge.”
Wary about losing Florida, or other states, in another presidential election, leaders are urging conservatives in Washington to get on board.
“The worst thing that can happen is doing nothing,” said Al Cardenas, chairman of the Florida Republican Party and head of the American Conservative Union, who says his passion is policy-related.
Rubio’s proposal to require an English-language proficiency test earlier in the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants suffered a setback Friday, after Senate leaders did not include it in an agreement on another amendment to beef up border security.
But the issue of mandatory English testing and classes is expected to be raised again in the House, where the Republican majority has been chillier to an immigration overhaul that would allow a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Rubio began his political career in 1998 as a city commissioner in West Miami. Many here, like his parents, emigrated from Cuba. They would be unaffected by the immigration bill, which continues the US policy of granting Cubans automatic asylum if they reach American soil.
The Senate bill focuses on the estimated 11 million immigrants now living in America without legal status. It would make them eligible for citizenship over a 13-year period, provided they conquer a series of hurdles, including proficiency in English, as the final step.
Rubio’s amendment was one of several provisions intended to make those hurdles more difficult. His plan would have required that the immigrants pass an English test to become permanent residents after 10 years, a key step toward citizenship, rather than simply enroll in classes, as the current law requires. The test is a fairly simple demonstration of speaking, writing, and reading administered by an immigration officer.
Immigration advocates say a change in the timeline is more significant than it sounds, potentially stalling the process for millions of people, because of a backlog in English-language classes and the difficulty many immigrants have in holding down jobs while working toward legal status.
“Why create another hurdle for immigrants that currently doesn’t exist?” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Center. “It’s political theater.”
Rubio’s office said it simply sought to clarify a previously agreed-to principle that improves immigrants’ lives and job prospects.
“Learning English is not just important for assimilation, it’s important for economic success,” Rubio said on the Senate floor recently, when he announced the effort.
In another speech Thursday, Rubio conceded that his efforts on immigration had alienated some of his conservative supporters. But, he said “This is not about saving the Republican Party or anybody else. This is about correcting something that is hurting the United States of America.”
Efforts to promote English more aggressively renew longstanding debates over what it means to be an American. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, championed a voter referendum in 2002 intended to curb bilingual education by placing students whose first language was not English more quickly into mainstream classes. Many students had difficulty meeting the law’s goals.
Yet the lack of English hardly seems like a barrier here in West Miami, and throughout South Florida, where the definition of assimilation is elastic. As America’s immigrant population grows, there are an increasing number of communities like Rubio’s hometown, including small pockets in Greater Boston.
In interviews in West Miami, people said they had lived decades in the United States without learning English. Some said they tried to take classes, but family obligations got in the way.
“It’s my fault. I didn’t put much effort into it,” Miguel Arrue, an 88-year-old who moved from Cuba 52 years ago, said in Spanish.
Tuesday morning, he was sitting outside West Miami City Hall sharing thimbles of Cuban coffee with two friends, while 30 people played bingo — in Spanish — inside. Arrue attends a bilingual Catholic Mass, watches Spanish-language television, and worked for years in a liquor store where he interacted with the public in Spanish.
It is impossible to forge a campaign in most of Miami without intense Spanish-language promotion, a trend that is growing around the country.
It is not just older immigrants. Next to the bingo game is a City Hall office that processes passport applications. Inside, young parents tell their toddlers to “vamos,” or “let’s go,” to get their passport photos taken, after the city clerks, also speaking Spanish, guide them through the application process.
Down the street, along the main thoroughfare linking West Miami and Miami, sits a strip mall called “Plaza America” that includes a supermarket, a jewelry store, and a bakery, all catering to locals.
The employees in the plaza’s beauty shop, Stars Beauty Salon, take turns cobbling together basic dialogue on the rare occasion they get a customer who does not speak Spanish, said Ada Ruiz, a 46-year-old cosmetologist who speaks scant English. Next door, where the cosmetic surgery clinic advertises its liposuction and tummy-tuck services with Spanish signs, the circumstances are similar.
“I know we’re in the United States of America, that we have to learn English,” said Patricia Barrios, who has spent 25 years in the United States without learning English. “But there are old people and it’s hard for them.”
But even within the immigrant community, there are many contradictions, and hardly unanimity over how the nation should treat new arrivals.
“I would like everyone already here to be legalized, but no more illegals,” said Mayda Alcover, a 56-year-old West Miami resident who came from Cuba in 1980, during the Mariel boatlift, and became a citizen two years ago. “If the border is open, they will keep coming.”
“I can’t find work in Miami,” she said in Spanish. “Because there are so many illegals.”