English Only Laws

English Only Zone Sign The EEOC recently ruled that requirements that employees speak English on the job violate the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This led to action in Congress to overturn the regulations, which in turn sparked heated exchanges among the legislators, John Fund reports:

It’s been less than a week since New York’s Sen. Hillary Clinton and Gov. Eliot Spitzer had to climb down from their support of driver’s licenses for illegal aliens. Now House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has moved to kill an amendment that would protect employers from federal lawsuits for requiring their workers to speak English. Among the employers targeted by such lawsuits: the Salvation Army.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a moderate Republican from Tennessee, is dumbstruck that legislation he views as simple common sense would be blocked. He noted that the full Senate passed his amendment to shield the Salvation Army by 75-19 last month, and the House followed suit with a 218-186 vote just this month. “I cannot imagine that the framers of the 1964 Civil Rights Act intended to say that it’s discrimination for a shoe shop owner to say to his or her employee, ‘I want you to be able to speak America’s common language on the job,’ ” he told the Senate last Thursday.

But that’s exactly what the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is trying to do. In March the EEOC sued the Salvation Army because its thrift store in Framingham, Mass., required its employees to speak English on the job. The requirement was clearly posted and employees were given a year to learn the language. The EEOC claimed the store had fired two Hispanic employees for continuing to speak Spanish on the job. It said that the firings violated the law because the English-only policy was not “relevant” to job performance or safety.

Alexander’s framing is, to say the least, disingenuous. A requirement to be able to communicate with customers and other employees in English would certainly be relevant. At issue here are rules requiring people to speak only English while on the job site.

Still, as anecdotes Fund recounts later in the piece make clear, the cultural animus over the language debate is strong. Both English and Spanish speakers are viscerally attached to their language, which is integral to their cultural identities.

To native speakers of the traditional language of the United States, it seems obvious that those who wish to live here should learn and communicate in that language. The idea that people would simultaneously leave their native land for the opportunities available here but still feel the need to maintain their heritage, including dressing and speaking in the manner they did back home, is simply bizarre.

Indeed, not so long ago, it was the official policy of the United States government. My mother immigrated to the United States from West Germany in 1964, by virtue of having married my father, and became an American citizen in 1965. The booklet she was given to study for her citizenship exam was very explicit that there is no such thing as a German-American or Italian-American or any other hyphenated-American; there are only Americans.

That idea has largely been abandoned. Indeed, even native-born Americans whose ancestors have been here for generations often affect a deep affinity for a homeland they, in most cases, have never seen. This has been particularly true in recent years for African-Americans, whose ancestors were often brought here involuntarily and then, to say the least, not integrated into the dominant culture.

The massive surge in Spanish-speaking immigrants, legal or otherwise, has exacerbated this trend. Cuban-Americans have come to dominate parts of Florida. Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens by law but often not by culture, have a major impact in several parts of the mainland. And, of course, Mexican and Central American immigrants have turned communities all over the country into bilingual — or even predominately Spanish — havens.

In the case of Mexican immigrants, there’s also the issue of much of the Southwest having been part of their ancestral homeland once upon a time. While the Reconquista idea is ridiculous and overhyped, there’s no doubt that this history has created a stronger sense of entitlement to maintain Latin culture and to resist assimilation.

Further, the fact that millions of these immigrants are here illegally further complicates the matter. On the one hand, it makes it virtually impossible for them to integrate into the society and encourages them to build community networks with other illegals. On the other, it adds to the resentment of natives, especially those who are competing with them for work and seeing their wages driven down, at those who speak Spanish.

Most of the impetus for rules requiring workers to speak only English at the workplace are visceral. Logically speaking, there’s no reason that Bob should care that Jose and Julio are speaking to one another in Spanish; they’re not talking to him, after all. In fact, though, there doing so makes him feel excluded, paranoid (they might be talking about him!), and angry.

It’s not unreasonable, then, for employers to seek to ward of these conflicts by insisting that workers speak English on the job. There are enough stresses in the workplace without adding in a linguistic caste system.

UPDATE: Some interesting discussions on this are being tracked at Memeorandum.

  • Ed Morrissey thinks the Hispanic Caucus is picking the wrong fight, figuring this “will not likely be a winning message in future elections.”
  • Pam @ Right Voices believes we break with a tradition as old as our country at our peril.
  • Gaius @ BCB believes “The actions of the Hispanic Caucus are against the best interests of the people they claim to represent.”
  • Scott Ott writes a parody that’s hard to distinguish from the real news.
  • Betsy Newmark “wonder[s] how many positions Hillary can take on this issue?”

Image Source: Vancouver English Centre

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Race and Politics, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Steph says:

    Where I work it’s English only while working because we have to communicate with each other. Of course our immigrants are legal and speak English and want to be Americans.

    When two people started talking spanish the supervisor reminded them English only and they said we’re talking about what we’re doing tonight after work and the sueprvisor rightly said “You shouldn’t be talking about that while working.”

    There’s often safety issues involved too. At least make the workers speak english when it’s anything involving work.

    If Jose doesn’t know English and Bob sees something might be falling and could kill him Jose might die because he doesn’t know GET OUT OF THE WAY!

  2. Steph says:

    Every other nationality that came over here wanted to be American didn’t want America to become Germany or Italy or whatever.

    We aren’t stopping people from speaking spnnish in their homes or with their friends.

    My family is of Irish descent. We celebrate many traditional things and my mother can speak Gaelic.

    But we are americans first.

  3. markm says:

    “Every other nationality that came over here wanted to be American didn’t want America to become Germany or Italy or whatever.”

    And the first things most did was learn the language. The difference is that most now only want to work here, send money home and do not want to be an American. They don’t want to assimilate.

  4. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    I don’t want to see the federal government get involved in this. It is reasonable to require that employees are capable of communicating effectively in English for a variety of reasons. If an employer doesn’t want them speaking anything but English at the workplace, they shouldn’t hire them in the first place. And if they fire them for not speaking in English, how does that become the business of Congress?

    God knows that I have been fired many times for reasons that are less valid than this and yet I never once considered seeking any kind of legal redress. I considered it to be a character building event. My attitude has been that if an employer doesn’t want me, I am not about to find a way to stay with it. There are plenty of other opportunities out there.

  5. davod says:

    I read that the Salvation Army gave its employees 12 months to learn the language.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    And the first things most did was learn the language. The difference is that most now only want to work here, send money home and do not want to be an American. They don’t want to assimilate.

    An exaggeration. There continue to be communities in the United States in which German is the primary language. Within living memory there have been communities in which French was the primary language (there may still be—I haven’t been to Louisiana lately).

    There have always been situations of linguistic isolation in the United States. The difference today is that modern communications and transportation makes most linguistic isolation self-imposed and a political statement.

  7. Steve Plunk says:

    Patrick,

    The federal government is already involved through the EEOC. They are forcing the issue and are probably outside of the original intent of the law. Now congress is looking to remedy the situation by removing the government intervention.

  8. markm says:

    “There have always been situations of linguistic isolation in the United States.”

    Agreed but not on this scale.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    Agreed but not on this scale.

    We’ve never had a population on this scale before, either.

    The closest analogue would be the 1890’s and New York City, for example, had Yiddish-speaking neighborhoods for decades after the immigration of eastern European Jews to the United States.

  10. C.Wagener says:

    Recently my pool was redone. It is done in several stages, one of which is when the “plumbers” show up. The “plumbers” were Spanish only speakers.

    While I had gone over everything with the project manager who assured me I’d always have someone that could speak English on premises, I still had a frantic moment explaining the negative affects of jackhammering a natural gas line in Spanglish. Normally, the homeowner wouldn’t be home. In comparison, many OSHA rules seem trite.

  11. James Joyner says:

    The “plumbers” were Spanish only speakers.

    That’s an entirely separate issue, though. OSHA isn’t requiring that people hire people who can’t speak English.

    In your case, presumably, the contractor was trying to get the cheapest possible laborers and simply didn’t care that they spoke Spanish on the job.

    In the case we’re talking about, employers are forbidding employees from speaking other languages, even in casual conversation with co-workers, in the workplace.

  12. Paul says:

    Should an employer require employees to speak English? As someone who tries to be sympathetic to immigrants and who disagrees with most of the anti-immigrant proposals and rhetoric these days, I’d say that is a tough question — but for the private market, not the federal government. Employers need to decide what works best for their business and then employees can decide whether they want to work for places who choose one way or the other. We have too much red tape on employers already, if we keep adding more there will not be as many jobs for the immigrants to come get.

    If EEOC is saying that any English-only rule is per se a violation incurring liability, that goes way too far. If they are saying that there may be some instances in which an employer’s rule is in fact a disguised means of pointless discrimination (such as firing two employees caught speaking Spanish in an employer lunch room not accessible by customers), I’d be willing to hear out their theory that the government has a role, although federal rules that require case-by-case analysis seem to invite too much costly litigation.

  13. LaurenceB says:

    Left to their own devices, humans will choose the most efficient language to communicate in. An employer who chooses to dictate that language is probably making a mistake. That having been said, I believe it is the right of the employer to make that mistake.

  14. Tano says:

    I think there is a tendency to romanticize the assimilation that took place in the past.

    When I grew up in “da city” there were no Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, German-Americans etc. There were only Italians, Irish and Germans. We all had relatives who never learned English. They were of the generation that wanted a new life, but also needed to maintain some sense of a coherent identity.

    Later generations naturally formed our identities based on our experinces which were exclusively formed in America (well in New York at least…).

    Thats the way things work. If the numbers in Latino communities today are such that there is a bit more of a buffer, a larger native-speaking community to be immersed in, and the result is that full homogenization takes place slower, so what? The process is relentless none the less.

    Children born in America will deal with other Americans all their lives, they will not be able to remain ghettoized, nor would they wish to.

    Maybe if those who are really concerned about this want to aid the assimilation process, who want current immigrants to behave like previous ones, they might consider erecting institutional channels to citizenship for those who are so well integrated into our economy.

    My advice is to just chill out on all this.
    It gets promoted as a big political issue by those who either have no sense of the dynamics of immigrants, or who have some nastier nativist agenda.

  15. Grewgills says:

    This is ultimately about 1-2 hundred cases a year and the majority of those are about people being fired for speaking Spanish on break. At least one case involves a woman being fired for greeting her friend by saying “buenos diaz” when she first arrived at work.
    This is not about solving a large or even real problem. It is an early election year stunt designed to create a divisive issue, much like the whole national anthem being sung in Spanish brouhaha.

    The idea that people would simultaneously leave their native land for the opportunities available here but still feel the need to maintain their heritage, including dressing and speaking in the manner they did back home, is simply bizarre.

    You mean like virtually every American I have met in Europe?

  16. James Joyner says:

    You mean like virtually every American I have met in Europe?

    How many Americans are moving to Europe to take jobs for someone other than their own government and refusing to integrate into the society? Heck, most American soldiers I knew at least made some effort to learn German even though they were living and working in an American environment.

  17. floyd says:

    I recently went car shopping in Illinois’ second largest city. Three of Five dealerships visited had NO SALESPERSON able to speak English!
    Nobody benefits from the Babelization of America.

  18. Grewgills says:

    How many Americans are moving to Europe to take jobs for someone other than their own government and refusing to integrate into the society?

    Admittedly the numbers are relatively small, but most of the Americans I have met here have done very little to integrate themselves into the society and remain in thought, dress, and language American.

    Heck, most American soldiers I knew at least made some effort to learn German even though they were living and working in an American environment.

    and most people who move to America, whether from Mexico or elsewhere, make efforts to learn English.
    That is not what this law is about. It is being deliberately framed to stir up nativist sentiment. Then any disagreement can be tarred as being against business and against America. Last cycle it was the national anthem being sung in Spanish, this cycle it is English only, next cycle it will be something else.

  19. ChineseGuy says:

    I am a Chinese guy working in a high-tech company
    established by American Jewish people. Most of my colleagues including my boss do NOT always speak English in the workplace, they speak Hebrew to each other. Of course, we Chinese folks enjoy our freedom to chat in Chinese.

    Nobody gives a damn about “English Only”, there is no such policy in our company. We are happy to work and live in a harmony and friendly environment.

  20. Low Sea says:

    I have a suggestion … instead of “English Only” how about “English Always” ? Here is what I mean:

    Have you ever seen a Spanish language publication and wondered what the title/headline means? Have you ever driven by a business with signage in Russian/Korean/Arabic etc and not had a clue what they were selling? Why is that OK? Certainly I understand that merchants in Chinatown are going to advertise in Chinese because of the many local residents who are more comfortable in their native language. That’s cool. But doesn’t such “Chinese Only” advertising discriminate against English speaking consumers?

    I propose a law be created that requires: (1) all non-English commercial signage (of any size) to include English translations in a reasonably sized subscript [some sort of % of the original text size]; (2) all non-English publications must have English translations of headlines, titles, chapter names, and captions; and (3) all non-English broadcasts should have English subtitles/2nd-Audio per whatever the same rules are that currently support these features in the other direction.

    Such a law will have two powerful benefits: (A) it will encourage the use of English in all commercial settings thus opening the door for potential customers that otherwise would avoid such businesses due to the language barrier, and (B) increase the opportunity for non-English speakers to be exposed to English words for familiar products thus expanding their ability to shop at English speaking businesses.