Who Are "We"?

Restrictionists in Congress are trying to push legal immigrants, and even some naturalized citizens, to the edges of society.

| Wed May 24, 2006 3:00 AM EDT

Article created by the The Century Foundation.

Evidently the anti-immigrant faction of the Congress and some of their constituents don’t merely want to send illegal immigrants packing. They also want to push legal immigrants and even some naturalized citizens to the edges of society. Two developments make this apparent: the overwhelming passage last week of an amendment to the immigration bill making English the “national language,” and the continued opposition by some members to renewal of the language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These actions in tandem demonstrate an inclination to see anyone who does not talk like “us,” (a.k.a. look like “us”) sidelined from the mainstream of American society economically, culturally and politically.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The national language amendment declares that no one has a right to federal communications or services in a language other than English except for those already guaranteed by law. While the full implications of this remain unclear, according to the Washington Post, immigration advocates say it would negate executive orders, court orders, agency regulations, civil service guidance, and state and local ordinances that call for multilingual services.

An estimated 47 million people in the U.S. speak a language other than English at home, and most of those people are either legal immigrants or U.S. citizens. English as a second language courses are notoriously under-funded , and waiting lists to get into such classes notoriously long.

Obviously it is very difficult under current law to survive economically in this country without knowing how to speak English. It is insulting to immigrants and Americans who speak another language to suggest that they don’t know this or don’t care. Nonetheless, the Congress believes their lives should be made harder because of their failure to overcome what are often impossible obstacles.

And this does not even take into account the cultural message this sends to people here and people around the world—if you don’t speak fluent English, you don’t belong here.

Opposition to Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act may be even more pernicious, and the rhetoric surrounding it echoes that of the English amendment—that people who do not speak great English should have lesser rights. Fifty-six members of the House of Representatives wrote a letter to the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee strongly opposing renewal of this provision.

Section 203 requires that communities with a large number of citizens who do not speak proficient English provide language assistance for voting. There is a relatively small but very persistent and vocal group that wishes to see this law expire. This faction believes the provision discourages people from learning English, facilitates noncitizen voting, and is too expensive.

However, as the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights goes through in detail, all of these arguments are specious. And they certainly do not overcome the overwhelming evidence that Section 203 is needed to ensure we sustain a true democracy. We got rid of literacy tests some time ago in this country. We do not limit the franchise to any particular ethnic group or those with advanced education. We believe every citizen has an equal right to participate in the democratic process, no matter what their background, race, gender, income, or first language.

Latinos already have very low voter participation rates. There is no question that without language assistance in select jurisdictions, this would worsen. A 2004 exit poll of approximately 11,000 Asian American voters found that almost one-third of them needed some assistance. The percentage needing assistance was even higher for new voters. If these citizens are effectively denied the right to vote because of a language barrier, can we truly say we are a government by the people, for the people?

The combination of these two recent efforts paints a disturbing picture of where we are going as a country. We believe this to be the land of opportunity and equality. These activities portend an America that is neither.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.