Speeches & Floor Statements

Being American: The Case of the EEOC vs. Salvation Army

Posted on May 7, 2007

Mr. President, at the end of March, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued the Salvation Army allegedly discriminating against two of the Army's employees in a Boston-area thrift store by requiring them to speak English on the job. This lawsuit means that every business in America – from the shoe shop to Wal-Mart – will need to hire lawyers to prove that it has a legitimate business purpose if it wants to require employees to speak our national language while at work. I asked the Chair of the EEOC in what language she holds staff meetings. She said, in English. We conduct Senate debates in English. Since 1906, no immigrant has been able to become an American citizen without learning English. At Hillsboro High School in Nashville, where my daughter graduated, students speak 28 native languages. But classes are conducted in English Federal law requires that all children in public schools be tested in English, and that if they do not know English, they must learn it as soon as possible. Over the last 40 years I have voted for or supported, I believe, almost every civil rights or anti-discrimination law that has been offered. But in America, requiring English in the workplace is not discrimination; it's common sense. More important, it's our common language. Our common language helps unite the diversity in this nation of immigrants. That is why, during its debate on immigration one year ago, the Senate adopted my proposals: · to provide $500 grants to help prospective citizens learn basic English; · to allow someone who becomes fluent in English to become a citizen after four years instead of five. The Senate also: · declared English to be America's national language; and · provided that anyone illegally here must first learn English before gaining legal status. A few Senators said we were wasting time debating national unity and language. But other nations are discovering just how important and difficult it is to unite one's country. Look at how today Turkey is struggling with whether to become more secular or more Muslim, struggling with what to do about its Kurdish minority. Germans are struggling to absorb Turkish workers. Italians are establishing agencies to help new Muslim residents "feel Italian." Three alienated British citizens, children of Pakistani immigrants, blew up a London subway two years ago. The children of disaffected Muslim immigrants in France burned cars during that country’s elections this weekend, a small echo of much larger riots two years ago. We Americans are rightly proud of our diversity, but Iraq and Jerusalem and the Balkans are also diverse. America's greatest accomplishment is not our magnificent diversity but that we have united that diversity into one country. Our original national motto, which is inscribed in the wall right above the Presiding Officer's Chair, is, "One from Many." Not "Many from One." Most nations unite around ancestry and race, making it hard for newcomers. Imagine "becoming Japanese" or "becoming German." On the other hand, the U.S. Constitution says race or ancestry can have nothing to do with someone becoming an American. Instead American unity is based upon ideas, principles found in our founding documents – such as liberty, equal opportunity and the rule of law. New citizens therefore must pass an exam about the Declaration of Independence, our Constitution and United States history. The first Europeans in America were French and Spanish, but our cultural beginnings and primary institutions and laws were Protestant and English. So English became the way Americans of many backgrounds communicated. In the 20th century, according to the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, American common (or public) schools were created primarily to help immigrant children learn arithmetic and to read and write in English with the hope that they would then go home and teach their parents. And then in 1906 all new citizens were required to know English. This has turned out to be a fortunate choice. English has also become a unifying language internationally. For example, every Chinese student is expected to study English. When Carlos Ghosn became Chief Executive Officer of Nissan, be began conducting business meetings in Nissan's Tokyo headquarters in English. The most fortunate children are those who grow up learning more than one language, but American parents know that one of those must be English. Mastering English is how an American succeeds in school, in the workplace, on the computer, and in international affairs. A century ago, many American companies and private associations led an effort to Americanize new immigrants. They taught their employees English and the National Anthem. Today, the EEOC is suing the Salvation Army for doing the very same thing, insisting that its employees learn and speak this country's common language. According to an article that appeared today in USA Today, “the number of charges filed with the [EEOC] alleging discrimination based on such English-only policies is . . . six times as large as 10 years ago, [growing] from 32 charges in 1996 to about 200 in 2006.” That is not only an astonishing waste of the EEOC's time and taxpayer money – the agency has a backlog of 56,000 cases – but it is also contrary to everything we know about the importance of achieving unity in our country. Speaking English is not a punitive requirement; it's a requirement to help us communicate with one another. A 911 telephone call isn't of much help to a Chinese-speaking person if the employee answering the phone speaks only Spanish. In this case, the Salvation Army posted its requirement that employees in its thrift stores speak English. The two employees in question had worked for the Salvation Army for five years. They were then given an extra year to learn English. When they didn't, they were let go. I intend to introduce legislation to put an end to these lawsuits by making it clear that requiring employees to speak English is not illegal discrimination, as long as the policy is clearly posted. More than that, I can think of nothing that would be more in our national interest than helping anyone in our country learn our common language. That is why later this month, when the immigration legislation comes to the floor, I will introduce again my amendments that the Senate adopted last year giving every adult immigrant a $500 voucher to receive English instruction and allowing those immigrants who want to become citizens to do that in four years instead of five if they become proficient – rather than just achieve a basic level – in English. Senator Kennedy and I have discussed the fact that there are too many adults eager to learn English standing in line in Boston and Nashville. They need help learning English, and I hope we can rectify that. For ten years I have suggested – most recently to Bill Gates – that I would like to see established a private foundation that would loan $500 to any person living in this country who wants to spend it at an accredited institution learning English-with the hope that someday that student would pay it back. The payoff to American unity would be worth the cost by itself. But I believe the bank would eventually grow to a huge size funded by grateful new Americans. Without our common language we would be a giant tower of Babel. It would be difficult for Americans to talk with one another, to debate political issues, and to vote. It would be harder to function as a democracy and to unite as one country. Without English we would risk becoming just another United Nations instead of the United States of America.