Wall Street Journal - JOHN FUND
JOHN FUND ON THE TRAIL
Does Nancy Pelosi really object to a common language in the workplace?
Wednesday, November 28, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST
Should the Salvation Army be able to require its employees to speak English? You wouldn't think that's controversial. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is holding up a $53 billion appropriations bill funding the FBI, NASA and Justice Department solely to block an attached amendment, passed by both the Senate and House, that protects the charity and other employers from federal lawsuits over their English-only policies.
The U.S. used to welcome immigrants while at the same time encouraging assimilation. Since 1906, for example, new citizens have had to show "the ability to read, write and speak ordinary English." A century later, this preference for assimilation is still overwhelmingly popular. A new Rasmussen poll finds that 87% of voters think it "very important" that people speak English in the U.S., with four out of five Hispanics agreeing. And 77% support the right of employers to have English-only policies, while only 14% are opposed.
But hardball politics practiced by ethnic grievance lobbies is driving assimilation into the dustbin of history. The House Hispanic Caucus withheld its votes from a key bill granting relief on the Alternative Minimum Tax until Ms. Pelosi promised to kill the Salvation Army relief amendment.
Obstructionism also exists on the state level. In California, which in 1998 overwhelmingly passed a measure designed to end bilingual education, the practice still flourishes. Only 29% of Latino students score proficient or better in statewide tests of English skills, so seven school districts have sued the state to stop English-only testing. "We're not testing what they know," is how Chula Vista school chief Lowell Billings justifies his proposed switch to tests in Spanish.
Yet the public is ready for leadership that will forthrightly defend reasonable assimilation. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won plaudits when he said last June that one way to close the Latino learning divide was "to turn off the Spanish TV set. It's that simple. You've got to learn English." Ruben Navarette, a columnist with the San Diego Union-Tribune, agreed, warning that "industries such as native language education or Spanish-language television [create] linguistic cocoons that offer the comfort of a warm bath when what English-learners really need is a cold shower."
But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that last year filed over 200 lawsuits against employers over English-only rules, has a different vision. Its lawsuit against the Salvation Army accuses the organization of discriminating against two employees at its Framingham, Mass., thrift store "on the basis of their national origin." Its crime was to give the employees a year's notice that they should speak English on the job (outside of breaks) and then firing them after they did not. The EEOC sued only four years after a federal judge in Boston, in a separate suit, upheld the Salvation Army's English-only policy as an effort to "promote workplace harmony." Like a house burglar, the EEOC is trying every door in the legal neighborhood until it finds one that's open.
In theory, employers can escape the EEOC's clutches if they can prove their policies are based on grounds of safety or "compelling business necessity." But most companies choose to settle rather than be saddled with the legal bills. Synchro Start Products, a Chicago firm, paid $55,000 to settle an EEOC suit against its English-only policy, which it says it adopted after the use of multiple languages led to miscommunication. When one group of employees speak in a language other workers can't understand, the company said, it's easy for personal misunderstandings to undermine morale. Many companies complain they are in a Catch-22--potentially liable to lawsuits if employees insult each other but facing EEOC action if they pass English-only rules to better supervise those employee comments.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), who authored the now-stalled amendment to prohibit the funding of EEOC lawsuits against English-only rules, is astonished at the opposition he's generated. Rep. Joe Baca (D., Calif.), chair of the Hispanic Caucus, boasted that "there ain't going to be a bill" including the Alexander language because Speaker Pelosi had promised him the conference committee handling the Justice Department's budget would never meet. So Sen. Alexander proposed a compromise, only requiring that Congress be given 30 days notice before the filing of any EEOC lawsuit. "I was turned down flat," he told me. "We are now celebrating diversity at the expense of unity. One way to create that unity is to value, not devalue, our common language, English."
That's what pro-assimilation forces are moving to do. TV Azteca, Mexico's second-largest network, is launching a 60-hour series of English classes on all its U.S. affiliates. It recognizes that teaching English empowers Latinos. "If you live in this country, you have to speak as everybody else," Jose Martin Samano, Azteca's U.S. anchor, told Fox News. "Immigrants here in the U.S. can make up to 50% or 60% more if they speak both English and Spanish. This is something we have to do for our own people."
Azteca isn't alone. Next month, a new group called Our Pledge will be launched. Counting Jeb Bush and former Clinton Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros among its board members, the organization believes absorbing immigrants is "the Sputnik challenge of our era." It will put forward two mutual pledges. It will ask immigrants to learn English, become self-sufficient and pledge allegiance to the U.S. It will ask Americans to provide immigrants help navigating the American system, the chance to eventually become a citizen and an atmosphere of respect.
This is a big challenge, but Our Pledge points out that the U.S. did it before with the Americanization movement of a century ago. It was government led, but the key players were businesses like the Ford Motor Company and nonprofits such as the YMCA, plus an array of churches and neighborhood groups.
The alternative to Americanization is polarization. Already a tenth of the population speaks English poorly or not at all. Almost a quarter of all K-12 students nationwide are children of immigrants living between two worlds. It's time for people of good will to reject both the nativist and anti-assimilation extremists and act. If the federal government spends billions on the Voice of America for overseas audiences and on National Public Radio for upscale U.S. listeners, why not fund a "Radio New America" whose primary focus is to teach English and U.S. customs to new arrivals?
In 1999, President Bill Clinton said "new immigrants have a responsibility to enter the mainstream of American life." Eight years later, Clinton strategists Stan Greenberg and James Carville are warning their fellow Democrats that the frustration with immigrants and their lack of assimilation is creating a climate akin to the anti-welfare attitudes of the 1990s. They point out that 40% of independent voters now cite border security issues as the primary reason for their discontent.
In 1996, Mr. Clinton and a GOP Congress joined together to defuse the welfare issue by ending the federal welfare entitlement. Bold bipartisan action is needed again. With frustration this deep, it's in the interests of both parties not to let matters get out of hand.