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