Here to Stay: Will Rhode Island Stay Polyglot?

by by Simone Landon

"It's all about race," insisted Gladys Gould at a rally titled "Unite for Fairness" on Saturday, January 20 in Pawtucket. "The police will stop us because of the way we look." Gould spoke about challenges faced by immigrants, especially Spanish-speakers, in a sometimes openly hostile Rhode Island. The rally was organized by several organizations that seek to improve the lives of immigrants, including Ocean State Action and the Providence Presbyterian Church. Organizers hoped both to create a feeling of unity within the immigrant community and to take a stand against those who discriminate against and criminalize all immigrants.

Ivette Luna, another rally attendee, pointed to the role of the state government: "The people on the Hill are feeding into anti-immigrant statements." Luna was alluding to two bills recently introduced to the House and the Senate. One, intent on reducing illegal immigration, plans to implement a statewide employee verification system, E-Verify, which enables employers to crosscheck names, pictures and social security numbers of employees. The other seeks to make English the state's official language.

Verify this
The bill that calls for the E-Verify program passed the House last year and will likely pass the Senate; 27 of 38 senators are co-sponsors. Supporters claim it will deter undocumented immigrants from entering the state (how they plan to inform prospective immigrants of the new system remains unclear). According to the Providence Journal, bill sponsor Representative Jon D. Brien thinks the program will send a message "that if you want to live in Rhode Island, you need to do it legally.

The senators proposing the implementation of E-Verify, Brien and Senator Marc A. Cote, are frustrated with the lack of federal leadership on curbing illegal immigration. Cote told the Journal, "If we are serious about enforcing our immigration laws, and to protect honest employers that abide by the law, I believe this proposal is a viable solution to the current problem." Brien added economic reasons for taking action: "Rhode Island has a great safety net of social programs for citizens who need help, but unfortunately, that's a draw for people who are in this country illegally. Especially at a time when our state has a deficit to reduce, we can't afford to shoulder that kind of burden."

Playing to the desire to balance the budget may win E-Verify support, but critics say the program will place the burden of proof on all immigrants, documented and undocumented alike. E-Verify assumes employees' guilt, or at least the high possibility of it. This has racial and linguistic implications, as does the second bill calling for the imposition of English as Rhode Island's official language.

Se habla inglés
The Rhode Island English Language Affirmation Act of 2008 is a revival of a similar bill that died in the House last year. The bill's sponsor, Representative Kenneth Carter, has Governor Carcieri's support. He cites the 27 other states that have adopted similar official language policies as examples for Rhode Island to follow. In a press release, Carter said the bill's purpose is to "encourage every citizen of this state to become more proficient in the English language," so that they can "participate more fully in the economic, political and cultural activities of the state."

Those opposed contend official language policies are a masked attack on immigrants, especially those of Hispanic origin. Such a policy can represent reactionary nativism that favors a narrow view of American linguistic and cultural history. Senate President Joseph A. Montalbano told the Journal that the bill "unnecessarily targets people that don't speak English and are doing the best they can to make it in this country." Others say the bill, rather than encouraging learning, unfairly punishes non-English speakers without offering them alternatives like ESL classes.

In Pawtucket, Luna called for education for both immigrants and native Rhode Islanders. "The key is education. We need the true facts. It's all about human. We all are people. We are all immigrants. An injustice to one is an injustice to all."

SIMONE LANDON B'10's official language is Esperanto.