A visibly flustered Hedy Weinberg — head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee — walked into room LP12, beneath Legislative Plaza, at 12:55 p.m. on Wednesday.
It was less than an hour before the English-only driver’s license bill would go up for its final Senate committee vote, one of the last obstacles it was to face before it passed the Senate on Thursday.
Weinberg and Remziya Suleyman, policy advisor for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, sat to the left of the aisle, facing Memphis Democratic Sen. Jim Kyle. To the right, in the front row, local ProEnglish mouthpiece Eddie Garcia was chatting with Murfreesboro Republican Sen. Bill Ketron, the bill’s Senate sponsor (Rep. Eric Watson, Republican of Cleveland, is the House sponsor).
It was like a wedding where the theme was unsubtle political metaphors.
“I just want this thing to go away,” Weinberg said.
The addition of a “business-friendly” amendment to the English-only driver’s license bill — which is just what it sounds like — renders it “meaningless,” or so goes the analysis. And the fact that both sides of the English-only debate believe it renders the law essentially impotent has, it seems, greased the bill’s progress through the legislature.
That’s all fine. Proponents of the bill may have an easier time getting it passed, scoring a victory for English lovers across the state. Opponents, particularly left-wing legislators and statewide chambers of commerce, get to say that they’ve compromised the bill into oblivion. Everyone wins.
Except it does appear to mean something.
The amendment uses the following language to create an exemption to what used to be an across-the-board English-only requirement: “For persons whose presence in the United States has been approved and authorized by the United States Department of Homeland Security for a specific purpose, including investing, overseeing investment, or providing needed services to companies or businesses in Tennessee, and for a specified period of authorized stay, such examinations may also be administered in such languages as may be determined by the Department of Safety with assistance from the Department of Economic and Community Development.”
According to Ketron, that may very well mean that the Tennessee Department of Safety will still be required to offer the driver’s license knowledge test in the languages it already does —Spanish, Japanese, Korean and German — to anyone with a temporary visa. Theoretically that’s how it works now, since undocumented immigrants can’t get licenses, the result of a 2003 bill Ketron also sponsored.
Unless, that is, you belong to a major non-English-speaking group that doesn’t need a visa, like, say, someone from a Spanish-speaking U.S. territory, said Suleyman in an interview following the meeting.
“What if you’re a Puerto Rican resident who comes to the United States?” she said. “You don’t speak English and you’d like to take the test in Spanish, but can you? You don’t technically have DHS approval.”
The amendment is designed in such a way that only exempts people carrying visas rather than green cards or even U.S. birth certificates.
“The language they used in that amendment to describe who would be eligible for these tests, it comes from another part of state code that deals with who would be eligible for a temporary license,” Suleyman said. “It doesn’t in any way address permanent residents who will need full driver’s licenses or, for that matter, U.S. citizens.”
Suleyman finally takes issue with the language that specifies a purpose as grounds for qualification. That, taken with the final nine words, dictating “assistance from the Department of Economic and Community Development,” would exclude individuals and entire groups not deemed to be significantly contributing to the economy.
“If someone, a foreign businessman, brings his wife here, will she be allowed to take the test in her own language? Probably not. Her visa would be much different than her husband’s,” she said. “This also looks like it gives ECD the power to choose which languages may be added to this exception in the future based on which groups bring in the most big business. Nashville has a large Kurdish population, but since they’re not significant enough economic contributors, Arabic wouldn’t be added to the languages we offer.”
Even when questioned after the meeting, Ketron wouldn’t say definitively whether those groups would be adversely affected by the law. Garcia, on the other hand, was quite sure.
“It’s a compromise,” said Garcia. “The key word is temporary versus permanent. If you’re coming here temporarily, you’re probably going to drive. And you’re going to run across some road signs that you might not be able to read. But the real safety issue is with people who are here permanently. Those are the people this legislation addresses. It was a necessary compromise. But if I was a state legislator, I’d eliminate it completely, make it all English-only.”
Lack of accessibility for some might pose a further challenge for the Department of Transportation if the law is found to violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which demands that, “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.”
According to budget documents, the safety department received more than $9 million in regular federal funding last year. In 2005, the state attorney general’s office released an opinion on a similar law stating that the agency could be vulnerable to losing part or all of its federal dollars if the state were to enact such a law.
Of course, the ramifications go beyond immediate practical concerns.
“It comes up every legislative session, and each session the legislature has come to the conclusion that it would not be a wise way to move,” Weinberg said. “Unfortunately, this year is different.”
It’s not even arguably the most important immigrant rights issue in the state. Nashville has been a 287(g) community for three years, essentially deputizing the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office as an arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Last year, the program expanded to allow local officers to screen suspected illegal aliens after an arrest for any crime, rather than after a conviction of a felony, as the original program allowed. State lawmakers have sponsored bills (unsuccessfully) to have the program expanded statewide despite criticism from civil rights groups and the Department of Homeland Security that the program is poorly managed, resulting in the arrest and deportation of many more minor than major offenders.
The current legislation is the second English-only bill the General Assembly has considered this year. The first, less controversial bill, which allows businesses to require their employees to speak English while working but not during breaks or while having casual conversations, passed the House 80-14 last month. Last year’s license bill passed the Senate 23-8 but never made it out of the Transportation Committee in the House. As of this writing, it has passed that committee but is awaiting a vote in the Budget Subcommittee of the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee.
What makes it striking is the timing and the context of last week’s 8-3 vote. Last month Arizona passed the harshest and most controversial anti-illegal immigrant law in the country. The law allows police officers to search anyone they believe may be an illegal immigrant. Critics have argued that the law can’t help but encourage racial profiling, and some have gone so far as to compare it to Apartheid.
It’s in that context that the state legislature may soon pass a law that, as it was presented, wouldn’t even accomplish any changes in the way that written license tests are given, but is simply there to “send a message” about what being an American should mean, as Ketron puts it.
“People have called me names like being a xenophobe or anti-American and etcetera, and we should be more welcoming. But to me, this is about sovereignty,” he said. “They can attempt to become an American citizen without attempting to turn our country into the country that you came from. I respect your traditions and your heritage. My heritage is German, but I’m American.”
To Kyle, though, as well as many of the business leaders represented by the state’s major chambers of commerce, it’s the wrong message.
“This puts us in a column of states that have these English-only license laws,” said Kyle.
“I don’t want to be on that list.”
Asked by committee members which other states are already on that list, Ketron could only name one: Oklahoma. He mentioned that similar legislation is being considered in Georgia and Alabama but has not yet passed. Finally, after thinking about it for a moment, he smiled pointedly, looked at Kyle and said, “Arizona’s on there.”
In a phone interview following the meeting, Ketrow acknowledged that he was signaling his interest in the Arizona law.
“Until what had occurred this last week in Arizona, I was asked if this was my re-election bill. I said, no, I’ve carried this bill every year for the last three years,” Ketron said. “I’ve carried more illegal immigration bills than anybody else.”
He concedes that this type of legislation does draw positive attention from some of his most vocal constituents. And he suggests that the legislature may see further movement in this direction.
“From the emails that I’ve been receiving this week, people have indicated overwhelming interest in doing what Arizona has done,” he said. Asked whether he plans to introduce similar legislation next year, he said, “We’ll see come January.”
Eddie Garcia is probably the best man for his job. Clearly he likes to talk. Actually he likes to make booming declarations, but in a way that gives the impression that he’s making them on your behalf. He speaks with equal passion to legislators, reporters and the state troopers at the Capitol who happen to pass into his field of vision. The topics: his childhood in a new country, immigrant communities’ need to learn English “for survival,” and the silly wastefulness of government documents written and printed in more than one language.
Add to that his back-story. He came to the United States from Cuba when he was 3 years old. His parents didn’t speak any English. In his utterly expectable expectedness, he is, perhaps, a bit too perfect a spokesman for ProEnglish, the Virginia-based English-only group that last year accounted for the bulk of the financing for Nashville’s failed English-only campaign. So maybe he’s just perfect enough for politicians.
“I’m an immigrant. Yeah, this country is the greatest country in the world. They embraced my parents when we came here in the ’70s,” he said. “But yeah, I do believe there’s a reciprocation, an obligation to assimilate.”
Garcia, as principal of local PR firm EVG Consulting (a Metro Nashville-certified minority-owned business), now has the responsibility of pitching English-only to a group of legislators who must be aware that his client’s founder, John Tanton, a Michigan doctor, has been identified as “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Tanton also founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
“I didn’t know who Eddie Garcia was until just last month. And I’ve never been contacted by ProEnglish,” Ketron said. “I don’t even know who those folks are. I’ve heard of their name and some things they’re doing in other states … [Garcia] came up and introduced himself in the hall. He said he was a U.S. citizen and he had an interest in the bill that I was carrying. I have had this bill for the last three years in the Senate.”
Garcia, for his part, characterizes the hate group charges as a smear campaign.
“Do your research on the Southern Poverty Law Center. They are not clean,” he said. “All they are is a fundraising scheme.”
There may be some merit to that, of course. Journalists like Ken Silverstein (in his 2000 Harper’s piece “The Church of Morris Dees”) and ratings groups like the Better Business Bureau have taken the SPLC to task a number of times for high administrative costs and over-fundraising.
But that doesn’t change some of the things Tanton has said on the record. In a 1996 letter to a colleague, he is quoted as asking “whether the minorities who are going to inherit California (85 percent of the lower-grade school children are now ‘minorities’ — demography is destiny) can run an advanced society?” Or this sentence, from a 1997 article in the Detroit Free Press: “ ‘If immigration continues at current levels, the Census Bureau projects that the U.S. population will approach 400 million by mid-century — with millions of extra people defecating and creating garbage and looking for jobs,’ as Tanton put it.”
Remziya Suleyman wonders whether the charges against Tanton would matter to local supporters of English-only bills.
“ProEnglish has a lot of people on its mailing list in Tennessee,” she said. “You have to start thinking that people just want these sorts of laws, and it doesn’t bother them to be connected to a hate group.”