Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander

“One from Many”

Posted on May 13, 2007

This March, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued the Salvation Army for allegedly discriminating against two employees in a Boston-area thrift store by requiring them to speak English on the job. The Salvation Army had posted its requirement that employees in its thrift stores speak English. The two employees 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. This lawsuit is not only an astonishing waste of taxpayer dollars, it contradicts everything we know about building a common society out of a nation of immigrants. In America, requiring English in the workplace is not discrimination; it's common sense. More importantly, it's our common language that helps unite the diversity in this nation of immigrants. 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. 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. 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. I can think of nothing that would be more in our national interest than helping anyone in our country learn our common language. We Americans are rightly proud of our diversity, but America's greatest accomplishment is that we have united that diversity into one country. Our original national motto was "One from Many,” not "Many from One." While other nations unite around ancestry and race, we don’t. Our Constitution says race or ancestry can have nothing to do with someone becoming an American. Instead American unity is based upon ideas and principles found in our founding documents -- such as liberty, equal opportunity and the rule of law. New citizens must pass an exam about the Declaration of Independence, our Constitution and United States history. Since 1906, all new citizens have been required to know English. It’s the way Americans of many backgrounds learned to communicate and still do. In fact, 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. Our nation continues to recognize the importance of English in becoming American. 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. 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 to learn 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. I’m proud to live in a nation of immigrants, but I’m even prouder that we are all Americans.