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UK immigrant spouses must speak English

By Jennifer Quinn
Associated Press / June 10, 2010

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LONDON — Love may have its own language, but that’s not good enough for the British government. It wants English, too.

Starting this fall, the spouse of a citizen who is coming from outside the European Union and wants to live in Britain will have to prove that he she has a basic command of English.

The requirement, announced yesterday by the new Conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron, was adopted as countries across Europe tighten their rules on immigration amid rising unemployment and concern about the ability of newcomers to integrate.

The famously tolerant Netherlands was holding an election yesterday in which a far-right party that wants to ban all immigration from nonwestern countries had a shot at doubling its seats in Parliament.

In Britain, the government is casting the new policy as an effort to promote integration, not to keep out foreigners.

“I believe being able to speak English should be a prerequisite for anyone who wants to settle here,’’ Home Secretary Theresa May said in a statement. “The new English requirement for spouses will help promote integration, remove cultural barriers, and protect public services.’’

Couples already have to meet other criteria, like proving their marriage is genuine and demonstrating they can support themselves financially. Language tests are required for skilled workers and people applying for permanent residency or citizenship.

The changes to Britain’s rules follow a hard-fought general election campaign in which immigration policy was a contentious issue.

The new measures have been criticized by civil libertarians, lawyers, and activists. Some say the changes discriminate against people from countries with few English-speaking traditions, such as in Africa and Asia. Others call them an intrusion into citizens’ private lives.

Some also argue that English is best learned in a country where it is spoken every day, rather than forcing people into classrooms abroad, which could be of varying standards and potentially costly. Spouses will have to show evidence to British authorities that they have passed an English test with a provider approved by the government.

But cultural integration depends on more than understanding certain words, said lawyer Danielle Cohen, whose London practice focuses on immigration and human rights.

Cohen called the changes to the rules an intrusion into the personal lives of citizens.

“The problem for me with this measure is that I don’t think the English language is a prerequisite for love,’’ Cohen said. “If you can communicate in your own language, what business is it of the state to interfere?’’

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