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Huff Post:The Constitution Does Not Sanction Bigotry ( English Only and the Tea Party )

Sunday, March 21, 2010

When I used to think of the phrase 'tea party,' two images came to mind. One was a huddle of elderly Victorian women, sipping tea in a kerosene lit parlor, discussing the benefits of steam. The second image was a scabrous gaggle of colonial European Americans, posing as Native Americans, hurling wooden ship cargo boxes full of tea into an already refuse laden Boston harbor.

Now, thanks to a group calling themselves the 'Tea Party Patriots,' I can add a third image. I can now picture small clusters of people, holding up offensive signs in public plazas, using terms like ''English Only' as euphemisms for legally sanctioned bigotry. I prefer the Victorian steam debates.

Several candidates for public office with ties to the Tea Party (Tea Partiers) have added immigration issues to their campaign platforms. Roy Moore, who is running as a conservative in Alabama's 2010 governor's race, has made immigration a key issue. Moore, who was previously dismissed from his position as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for his refusal to take down a monument of the Ten Commandments from the state courthouse, supports making 'English Only' a requirement for obtaining a drivers license. Though English is the official language of Alabama, counties in the state currently offer testing in 11 languages, in compliance with federal law. Moore's support for 'English Only' driver's licensing is part of a wave of 'English Only' proposals that have spread like wildfire to many cities and towns across the U.S. at the urging of anti-immigration activists.

The 'English Only' issue appears to resonate with many Tea Partiers. The issue made a strong showing in the Contract from America, a document to be finalized this spring that is intended to signal the Tea Party's policy priorities before the 2010 midterm elections. The contract has received support from former House majority leader Dick Armey, who currently heads FreedomWorks, a D.C. based group that has promoted Tea Party activism. Other prominent Tea Party supporters have also espoused anti-immigration rhetoric. Recently, Ada Fisher, Republican National Committeewoman for North Carolina, roundly criticized federal laws requiring multilingual medical interpreters: "You cannot be one nation under God when everyone's speaking something different."

One website that calls itself "the Official Home of the American Tea Party Movement" defines the Party as a non-partisan grassroots organization that exists to "... attract, educate, organize, and mobilize our fellow citizens to secure public policy consistent with our three core values of Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets." The site claims that Tea Partiers are "...inspired by our founding documents and regard the Constitution of the United States to be the supreme law of the land ... united by our core values derived from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States of America and the Bill Of Rights..." These statements beg an answer to the question, how can a group that connects so deeply with the Constitution be so blindly at odds with its core inclusionary principles? For starters, Tea Partiers seem to be focused only on ideas gleaned from the Constitution as passed in 1787, ignoring key changes in the document that were adopted in the years since. We wouldn't still deny women the right to vote, though women's rights weren't protected back in 1787. That's because the 19th Amendment changed the constitution. Why, then do the Tea Partiers want to ignore the 14th Amendment?

Section 1 of the 14th Amendment reads, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." In the case of an 'English Only' mandate - refusing to provide those that are not native English speakers with crucial information, such as medical information, in their native language, puts lives at risk. I'd argue that denying access to important information on an 'English Only' basis controverts the 'nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law' component of the 14th Amendment.

Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act reads, "No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." There's also an executive order requiring federal agencies to examine the services they provide, identify any need for services to those with limited English proficiency (LEP), and develop and implement a system to provide those services so people who are LEP can have meaningful access to them. The 'English Only' mandate clearly conflicts with both Title VI and the executive order.

Interestingly, 'English as the official state language' laws are on the books in 30 states, yet the U.S. Department of Justice makes clear that implementation of these laws can't violate Title VI. Still some public officials interpret the laws to mean that English is the only language of daily life, ignoring federal prohibitions against discriminating against non-native English speakers. Tea Party affiliated Dick Armey has suggested, "...scrap multiculturalism in the schools and give parents real school choice." By multiculturalism, is Mr. Army suggesting that we "scrap" school programs for kids who are still learning English, thus keeping non-native English speakers from becoming a part of America's social and economic fabric? By pushing 'English Only', the Tea Party risks damaging constitutionally protected rights. And yes, the Constitution does afford protections to non-native English speakers. This takes us back to the 14th Amendment. In 1982, in a case called Plyler v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas statute denying funding for education to undocumented children. The Texas law had also allowed school districts to deny these children enrollment in schools. The Court found that the Texas law violated the 14th Amendment, thus acknowledging undocumented children as people and protecting them from state sanctioned discrimination.

Have Tea Partiers forgotten that the U.S. was built by many non-English speaking immigrants, and is comprised of their descendants? I urge Tea Party members to understand that claiming this nation's core principles as a basis for policy actually means adhering to this nation's core principles. Otherwise, Tea Partiers will continue to be accused of using phrases such as 'English Only' to mask policies that disenfranchise non-native English speakers. Ignoring the full breadth of the Constitution is just plain un-patriotic, and un-patriotic appears to be the last thing Tea Partiers want to be.

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