Make America English Again

A trio of citizen initiatives takes aim at Oregon’s immigrant population

The current Republican front-runner has vowed, if elected president, he will build a wall along America’s southern border, claiming its construction would be done at Mexico’s expense.

Donald Trump has accused Mexico of “sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us.”

The presumptive Republican nominee also accused a community that makes up 12.5 percent of Oregon’s population and 17.4 percent of the nation’s population of “bringing drugs” in his 2015 presidential announcement speech. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

More recently, Trump accused the judge in the lawsuit against Trump University of bias against him due to the judge’s Mexican heritage.

While blatantly pinning blame on the Latino community and other immigrant populations for America’s crime rate and economic problems sparked national controversy, some Oregonians are attempting to carry the rhetoric over to the state level through the state’s initiative petition process. Anti-immigrant groups are building a virtual wall of their own, trying to cloak hate and bigotry under the guise of reducing government and lowering costs.

The right-wing group Oregonians for Immigration Reform and Republican Rep. Mike Nearman have pitched Initiative Petitions 40 and 52 — proposals aiming to make English the official language of the state and to require employers to use the federal E-Verify system. Nearman is also sponsoring IP 51, which would increase barriers to voter registration.

Pro-immigrant groups are rallying to beat these petitions before they make it onto the ballot by pointing out their racist and divisive undertones.

Speak English or die

The initiative process allows the state’s citizens to propose laws or amendments to Oregon’s Constitution, as well as to adopt or reject bills passed by the state’s Legislature in the general elections. If the chief petitioners gather the required number of signatures, the initiative is placed on the ballot this November.

In the past, this process has legalized marijuana, but it has also hampered the rights of Oregonians — a 2004 ballot measure banned gay marriage for a decade until it was overturned in 2014 by a federal judge. Also in 2014, Oregon voters decided against allowing undocumented citizens to obtain drivers licenses via Measure 88.

Andrea Miller, executive director of Causa, an immigration rights organization, says her group has organized a coalition to combat these initiatives. “From the coalition’s perspective, these initiatives are very negative and are against Oregon’s values of trying to reach equity and equality for all communities,” Miller says, “and instead try to project values very similar to Trump’s values.”

IP 40 proposes to make English the official language of Oregon, requiring state-run agencies to provide services in English regardless of the affected person’s proficiency with the language, and would forbid government officials from communicating in any language other than English while on the job.

According to a study by the American Psychological Association, racist attitudes are the impetus behind the English-only movement in the U.S.

Oregon adopted an English Plus policy in 1989, by way of Senate Joint Resolution 16, which legislated that “the use of diverse languages in business, government and private affairs, and the presence of diverse cultures is welcomed, encouraged and protected in Oregon.”

Miller says of IP 40, “It would limit government’s ability to provide service and information in languages other than English.”

Rep. Nearman says that 31 states have legislation that make English their official language and that he believes anyone born and raised in the United States should be able to speak the language.

In other words, mothers who don’t speak English seeking assistance in feeding their families at the Department of Human Services wouldn’t be able to get help accessing the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, more commonly referred to as food stamps.

“Could you imagine the DHS or DMV as English-only zones?” Carrasco asks. “Taking away the language is the last blow of colonialism.”

In addition, Nearman says this won’t have any affect on the private sector. The initiative would also eradicate any positions requiring that government employees speak languages other than English.

“There’s a lot of positions that get hired for where they require personnel to speak a language other than English and that get very expensive to have [as a] requirement,” Nearman says. “So it would save the state of Oregon a lot of money.”

Underlying racism

Philip Carrasco is president of Grupo Latino Acción Directa (GLAD), a Lane County-area Latino group dedicated to increasing the participation and visibility of Latinos in conversations surrounding the issues that affect them. Carrasco says these new measures are hateful and divisive.

“We’re no longer going to stay on the sidelines of political activity,” Carrasco says. “We’re being proactive in asking people to decline to sign, united against hate.”

Carrasco says that because blatant racism in politics is no longer as successful as it once was, groups like Oregonians for Immigration Reform (OFIR) are attempting to expel Latino citizens through attrition, by using neutral terms to pass seemingly innocent laws that make life more difficult for immigrant communities.

“This reeks of white supremacy,” Carrasco adds. “It’s an outright attack on immigrants.”

When asked if he thinks these initiatives are intolerant of immigrant communities, Nearman says he doesn’t think he’s being intolerant. He does, however, accuse his opposition of intolerance for allegedly defacing a sign promoting the initiative and booing him at a public forum.

“I really don’t think I’m the intolerant one,” Nearman says. “I think the people I’m dealing with sometimes are intolerant.”

English-only legislation first appeared in Oregon in 1981 as a constitutional English Language Amendment. The proposal would have banned all uses of languages other than English by federal, state and local governments, but the measure never came to a congressional vote, says James Crawford, an author who writes about language and policy issues.

“In the early 1990s, English-only advocates changed their strategy,” Crawford says. “Recognizing the long odds against ratifying a constitutional amendment, they began to promote a statutory form of official English.”

The push for language-policy reform in Oregon and nationwide was initially proposed by an organization called U.S. English, which Crawford says was a spin-off from an immigration-restriction group targeting migrants from Southeast Asia and South America.

“It appealed to a lot of racists who didn’t like Latinos and Asians,” Crawford says. “It doesn’t mean everyone in the movement is doing it out of racial motive. Some think it’s innocent.”

Nearman says IP 40 and 52 were proposed in collaboration with OFIR. OFIR is an organization aiming to stop illegal immigration and “reduce legal immigration to more environmentally, economically and socially sustainable level.”

Supporters of Initiative Petition 40 claim the initiative will promote the learning of English by making it more difficult for immigrants to rely on their native languages.

“We have people that have emigrated here legally and have been here for years and years and years and have never learned the language,” OFIR president Cynthia Kendoll says. “And the more we do, the more we pander to keeping them within their own language, the less likely they are to attempt to learn our language.”

While translation services help individuals not proficient in English, Crawford says the fact isn’t that people aren’t learning the language; rather, it’s that immigrant families are losing their native language more rapidly than ever before.

The Children of Immigrants Longitude Study, which looks at the children of immigrants with language through the scope of language and assimilation, shows more than 70 percent of the kids prefer to use English all the time.

“Large numbers of these kids are learning English rapidly,” Crawford says, “and losing the language of their parents and grandparents.”

A member of the local Latino community, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of repercussion, says this has happened in her own family. As the eldest, she’s more fluent in Spanish than her younger siblings, and her youngest sibling speaks the least Spanish, often responding to Spanish in English.

“English-only is a bunch of B.S.,” she adds. “They’re imposing the imperialistic, colonialist idea.”

Carrasco of GLAD echoes the same sentiment: “It’s the idea of supremacy. It’s still alive and well.”

In defending the initiative, Kendoll says that there are 138 languages spoken in Oregon, and it would be impossible to provide services in all spoken languages. She also claims that the opposition has tried to cast negative light on OFIR’s attempt to establish an official language for the state of Oregon.

In comments published by the Oregon secretary of state on drafts of the petition, Kendoll is repeatedly quoted as objecting to the title, saying it should state that the initiative’s purpose is to “prohibit government discrimination against English-only speakers.”

In Oregon’s IP process, after chief petitioners gather and submit 1,000 sponsorship signatures, the secretary of state’s elections division forwards the text of the prospective petition to the attorney general for the drafting of a ballot title, which “impartially summarizes the petition and its major effect.”

Miller of Causa argues that it isn’t that immigrants don’t want to learn English, but that as adults with jobs and families, their time is limited. “In fact,” she says, “there are longer wait lists for English classes among ESL (English as a second language) learners than there are available.”

Ultimately, Nearman says, it isn’t that he doesn’t want to help those who don’t speak English, but rather, those who are here legally and don’t speak the language, like refugees, are a very small percentage of the population.

“Now, for somebody who maybe is here illegally, that might be a difficulty for them,” Nearman says. “I’m not all that interested in providing services for that person.”

Right to work

IP 52, titled the “Oregon Employment Protection Act,” would mandate all employers must obtain an Oregon employment license to be able to employ anyone, and employers would be required to verify a person’s eligibility through the federal E-Verify system.

The initiative also puts pressure on employers by proposing a non-compliant employer be put on probation by the secretary of state, requiring quarterly reports demonstrating compliance. For any subsequent violation a business would lose it’s employment license for at least 30 days and up to a year.

Kendoll says the E-Verify system runs any potential employee’s information through the social security and homeland security databases to ensure they’re eligible to work in the United States.

“I think citizens are concerned about the number of people that are working in our state that are not legally supposed to be working here,” Kendoll says.

Miller of Causa says that there’s already a workable system in place — the I-9 form — to ensure workers are eligible for employment.

Federal immigration law requires that employers review certain documents such as a social security card, birth certificate or passport to establish an employee’s eligibility. It also makes it illegal for employers to knowingly hire unauthorized persons.

“It would require that in order to hire employees for your business of any size, you would have to acquire this business license that allows you to employ employees,” Miller says. In addition, she says, the bill would also require employers to use E-Verify, which she calls a flawed system.

Kendoll contends that the E-Verify system is not flawed, noting that stories claiming this will keep Americans from getting jobs is “just bogus.”

“Last time I checked, I think it was a 99.6 percent satisfaction rate,” Kendoll says. “It’s accurate.”

According to E-Verify’s annual satisfaction survey, published by the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the 2014 Customer Satisfaction Index calculated a score of 87 out of 100.

Currently, 4,722 employers in Oregon hold a memorandum of understanding with the USCIS’s E-Verify system.

In a study of more than 30 million submissions to E-Verify, USCIS reported automatic approvals in 98.8 percent of the cases — that’s 1.2 percent with mismatches, with a 0.18 percent approval after initial mismatch.

The greatest concern from the pro-immigration camp is that a mismatch can be triggered by something as simple as a spelling error, and for those who bear atypical American “non-white” names, who are often immigrants, this can become a barrier to employment.

While 1.2 percent of initial mismatches may seem like a miniscule percentage, if implemented across the country, initial mismatches could affect hundreds of thousands of eligible workers — 1.2 percent of 300 million is over 3.5 million.

But Kendoll says a business can’t deny hiring based on an initial mismatch, and that those who experience a mismatch have up to three days to rectify the issue with Social Security.

It’s true, according to the initiative, employees can begin working before eligibility is verified, if they are hired by a business that is licensed to employ in Oregon. And if E-Verify triggers a mismatch, employees have the ability to contest what is called a “tentative nonconfirmation,” while they settle the mismatch with the federal government, during which the employer cannot terminate employment.

While it may seem like those who proposed the initiative have addressed the issue, it still requires businesses to remain in an employment agreement with someone who is unable to work due to a mismatch. This has the potential to place a heavy burden on employers waiting on results from the federal governments and employees unable to work.

“It will keep people who are not authorized to work in our country from getting a job,” Kendoll says.

Carrasco says it doesn’t matter whether someone is here legally — ultimately those who live here are citizens paying taxes and contributing to the state’s economy and work force.

While Carrasco is being proactive in gathering pledges to deny the signing of all three petitions for the initiatives proposed by Nearman, the petitioners apparently haven’t begun gathering signatures to support them.

According to a study titled, “Undocumented Immigrants State and Local Tax Contributions,” by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, undocumented immigrants contribute over $11 billion annually in state and local taxes.

While they contribute significantly to tax revenues, undocumented citizens don’t benefit from any of the social services the taxes support — which is ironic, considering undocumented citizens are often accused of being a burden on tax revenues.

“It’s like that saying,” Carrasco says, “we’re simultaneously too lazy to work and taking all the jobs.”

“I don’t believe any signatures have been gathered outside of the sponsorship signatures,” Kendoll says.

Nevertheless, Carrasco still worries.

“It’s exhausting noticing all of this happening,” Carrasco says. “We have a saying: ‘Once you’re woke, you’re woke.’”

EW’s anonymous source says groups like OFIR don’t understand that they are separating families and drafting initiatives that make it increasingly difficult for them to stay together. The result of proposals like these, the source says, is “I’m always afraid I’m going to get the call that someone made a complaint and they’re taking my mom.”

By making it more difficult to gain employment, families desperately attempting to stay together will be forced to do so through less legal means.

Vote early, vote never

IP 51 would change current voter registration methods in Oregon by requiring in-person registration to vote in state, federal and local elections. And it would require in-person voting with proof of citizenship.

The initiative also would eliminate the 2015 Motor Voter law, which automatically registers eligible voters when they apply for the license, permit or ID card through the DMV.

Carrasco’s organization is still campaigning against IP 51, though Republican attorney James Buchal, one of the petition’s backers, says they’ve “torched the ballot title, and I don’t even think they’re collecting signatures.”

Carrasco says it’s ironic that conservatives, who often speak out against big government, are going to the federal government for help with immigration, asking, “How does this reduce government?”

With the primary elections ending soon, and heated interactions between Trump and anti-Trump supporters across the country, there’s no doubt it’s going to be an incendiary election come November.

At first, Carrasco thought Trump was a joke. “Now, I’m actually afraid,” he says.

Carrasco says the hate coming from the Republican presidential campaign could be motivating local organizations, supporters and hate groups to take action through such things as the initiative process.

“I’m afraid of neo-Nazis and hate groups that might actually do something,” Carrasco says of what “Trump’s rhetoric inspires.”

Still, Carrasco says he doesn’t plan to let up on raising awareness and mobilizing his community against petitions that he says are based in hate.

“It’s a new day, this is a new America,” Carrasco says. “We have a new American Dream.”

Editor’s Note: The cover graffiti is taken from slurs experienced by immigrants. “Respect are [sic] country, speak English” is from a Tea Party protest sign.