Immigration Reform Must Respect Rights of Workers and Non-English Speakers

Immigration Reform Must Respect Rights of Workers and Non-English Speakers
January 31, 2013
Father and son with American flag

Both President Obama and a bipartisan group of Senators unveiled plans for overhauling our nation’s immigration system this week, taking an important first step toward much needed comprehensive immigration reform.  We are encouraged that our leaders are considering a pathway to citizenship and that the President proposes recognizing the rights of same-sex families for immigration purposes.  If reform is done right, it will bring millions of immigrant workers out of the shadows while strengthening our economy and our communities.

But, as we work toward reform, we must not repeat past mistakes.  In 1986, responding to demands for “beefed up” enforcement, Congress imposed sanctions on employers for hiring undocumented workers.  The effects have been devastating.  Instead of stemming the tide of undocumented workers, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 invited employers to discriminate against people based on their national origin during the hiring process and emboldened unscrupulous employers to threaten workers with deportation when they asserted their workplace rights.  Congress should carefully consider this lesson before including mandatory electronic employment verification in any proposed immigration reform package. 

It would also be a mistake to sacrifice the language rights of newcomers in order to reach a compromise that is amenable to everyone.  It is perhaps a measure of how desperate the need is for reform that virtually no one is challenging the likely requirement that all undocumented persons “learn English” as a condition of getting on “the path to citizenship.” 

Make no mistake: Comprehensive immigration reform must happen. We as a nation must acknowledge and move past the contradiction of viewing undocumented workers, who are integral to our economy and to our communities, as persons who must be rooted out and deported as supposed threats to our way of life.  But in recognizing this reality, and in doing the right thing by creating a process for legalizing these millions who currently lack status, it is shameful that the punitive and xenophobic “learn English” mandate is likely to be enshrined into law as a consequence.

History has shown time and again that the languages newcomers to America speak have been a convenient cover for xenophobia and ethnic prejudice. The waves of vicious anti-immigrant animus in this country have gone hand in hand with attempts not only to ban the speaking of “foreign” languages, but to unnecessarily declare English the “official language” and to condition the extension of legal rights upon a demonstration of English proficiency. 

Hyperbolic fears that the United States would otherwise become a “non-English speaking” nation have fueled legalized discrimination against those for whom English is an acquired language, or who are still learning it.  This has been the case even though such measures are almost inevitably counterproductive and self-defeating, and even though they impact most harshly those among us who are already the most marginalized and most in need of equal opportunities.

It may well be politically expedient to include an across-the-board “learn English” requirement in any immigration reform package, if only as a sop to those swing votes in Congress who need, for whatever reasons, to prove that they are “tough on immigrants.”  And hopefully any eventual requirements that are adopted might at least make the same commonsense exceptions as currently exist in the naturalization scheme, such as waiving the requirement for persons over a certain age.  But it is deeply saddening that, in this case, doing the right thing is likely to come at the price of bowing to an irrational, unfair, and discriminatory litmus test of what it means to be an American.

To learn more about important aspects of the proposals that have been put forward by the Senate “Group of Eight” and the President, read up on: