Speak Spanish? At Your Own Risk: Minority Languages and Anti-immigrant Fever in the United States

by multilingualmania on May 4, 2011

in Bilingual Politics, Immigration, Politics

On April 2nd, 2010, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 42 Amway salespeople on their way to a convention after an undercover agent heard them speaking Spanish at a restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska. In November, the American Civil Liberties Union filed an ethnic stereotyping and racial profiling claim on behalf of two US citizens who were arrested as part of the raid, which ICE defended by saying that since both agents were Hispanic as well as native Spanish speakers there was clearly no racial profiling involved. The ACLU disagrees and argues in its claim that, not only is ICE guilty of racial profiling, but its agents committed false arrest, false imprisonment, and battery, as well. “Speaking Spanish is not a crime, nor does it provide any basis for immigration officers to start demanding papers or otherwise launch any investigation,” said Mark Silverstein of the ACLU of Colorado.

The Amway arrest happened just a few weeks before Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law, which several sources, including The New York Times deemed the “nation’s toughest bill on illegal immigration.” SB 1070 made it a misdemeanor for residents not to have their registration documents on them at all times and obligated police to check an individual’s immigration status during a stop if there was a “reasonable suspicion” they were undocumented. Reasonable suspicion is a fairly flexible legal standard, far less stringent than the requirement that police have probable cause before arresting a suspect. Thus, when SB 1070 passed, millions of Spanish-speaking Arizona residents worried whether simply communicating with their friends and family in their native language might provoke an immigration stop.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is currently deciding whether to affirm a July appellate court decision to enjoin some of the most hotly debated sections of the law. But even if the injunction remains intact, it seems that the battle against racially-motivated civil rights violations is just beginning: on November 23, California Secretary of State Debra Brown introduced the “Support Federal Immigration Law Act” referendum, which looks and sounds an awful lot like SB 1070. California and Arizona lead the country’s English-only education movement, often criticized by bilingual advocates for denigrating the cultural importance of minority languages. And an audit revealed that California has failed to provide state-mandated bilingual services to its residents for over ten years in some areas.

Unconstitutional ICE raids on Spanish speakers, laws encouraging racial profiling, and state failures to provide residents with adequate bilingual services don’t simply reflect a growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, they reveal an increasingly militant attitude towards minority languages and minority language speakers. Never mind their business suits, briefcases, or the driver who confirmed to ICE agents that he was chartered by Amway, the simple fact that 42 people were speaking Spanish at a fast food restaurant apparently made them suspicious enough to detain and arrest. As Mark Silverstein pointed out, speaking Spanish is not a crime, but it is slowly becoming stigmatized as one while right-wing politicians and media pundits characterize minority language speakers as divisive and un-American. The message is clear: real Americans speak English. The question is: will you deliver it?

Say no to the English-only agenda. Stand up for linguistic rights. Speaking a minority language is not a crime.

About the Author: Rachael Kay Albers is a freelance writer, English teacher, and theater facilitator working to educate and empower indigenous women in Central America. In her spare time, she loves to maintain and improve her bilingualism by reading novels and watching movies in Spanish.

Other Articles by Rachael Kay Albers:
Endangered Languages: Can We Really Resist Extinction?
When Speaking Your Language is Shameful: Thoughts from Mayan Mexico
Saying Tla to English-only: How Aggressive Majority Language Policies Threaten Native Culture

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Patricia Reynolds May 5, 2011 at 8:48 am

My gracious.. good thing Italian was not a profiled language.. my grandparents would have been charged with not sepaking English, too! This is simply ridiculous.. and dimishes the people we are and where we all came from..

multilingualmania May 5, 2011 at 11:43 am

I’m pretty sure that at some point Italians were targeted like this as well! My great grandparents came from Italy in the 20s and I remember that she tells me horrible stories of how they were treated! My other side of the family were Irish immigrants and they were just really discriminated against as well.

Marina May 8, 2011 at 7:23 am

This is truly disturbing. The US seems to be becoming more and more xenophobic. My workplace recently conducted an informal fun poll asking if we spoke another language aside from English. Of the several thousand who responded, 51% said yes. As someone who has always been interested in other languages, it shames me to say I don’t actually know enough of any to be a part of that 51% While I believe it’s advantageous to know English in the US, I can’t see any extra benefits to being monolingual.

Salma May 9, 2011 at 9:10 am

Wow, I didn’t hear about this…I guess it doesn’t make popular news. Thanks for sharing.

I remember speaking French to my then (5 year old daughter) in California at a grocery store and I was told “…in this country we speak ENGLISH…” I replied…”good for you, I speak English too” and walked away.

Sarah June 13, 2011 at 7:46 pm

This is so sad… And the worst part is that some people think that everyone is against bilingualism when there are clearly a lot of people who might only speak English and still support bilingualism and love to learn about other cultures. I have had people say things like “speak English” but really I try to see only the positive side, the people who have asked me to help them with their Spanish and are truly open to new cultures 🙂

Johanna July 23, 2011 at 8:45 am

This is not only sad, it’s actually frightening! I come from a country (Netherlands) where being multilingual is the norm, although nowadays immigrants have to have a Dutch language certificate. That’s okay with me, after all that is our native and official language, but we do still respect people speaking other tongues too. I’m proud to speak Spanish. It’s a beautiful language spoken by millions of people. Fortunately as I scan through the other comments there are still lots of American citizens who support bilinguism and respect other cultures!

Josh October 20, 2011 at 5:57 pm

Finally states stepping up to halt the illegal immigration whats bad about that? yes please show your papers stating you are legal to be here or GO HOME its that easy.

multilingualmania October 25, 2011 at 6:24 pm

People who speak Spanish are not all undocumented immigrants.

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