In light of the new immigration laws signed into effect in Arizona, now might be the perfect time to question the direction our politics are taking in regards to foreigners in our own land. For those of you who don’t know, on April 23 Arizona passed a bill allowing police to question and arrest people without warrant if there is “reasonable suspicion” about their immigration status, among other items. Whether you see this bill as a step in the right direction toward preventing illegal immigration or view it as legalized racial profiling, it should be noted that this is not the only case of its kind making headlines in America’s legislature.
Several states throughout the South and Midwest are in the process of voting on bills that have to do with prohibiting people from taking their driver’s license tests in and language other than English. As of now, Georgia has passed this bill in the Senate, and the governor has publicly said he would sign it into a law (currently, Georgia offers the test in 12 languages). Tennessee, Alabama and Missouri are all also in the process of getting similar bills passed. All four states cite the importance of road safety as their number one concern; however, in Georgia, the new law would allow illiterate English speakers to have the driver’s test given to them orally—thus nullifying the literacy argument.
Why is this happening all of a sudden? Where did this backlash against non-native English speakers come from? Certainly the media has helped by portrayals of floods of illegal immigrants taking our jobs and taxes and clogging up our health care system. But what about our own personal experiences with people who come from other cultures?
As someone who teaches English to adult immigrants and refugees, it goes without saying that I believe people who live in America should make every effort to learn English. This is not, however, for my own sake. English is the language of power and of trade, and it will help make the transition into American life easier on those who come from other nations. It opens doors to higher education and to jobs. It is as close to a global language as the world has right now, and I view it as a form of social justice to help people become able to communicate in English as it can affect their life in so many positive ways.
That being said, I know from personal experience that for many adult learners, it is either extremely difficult or almost impossible to become fluent and/or literate in English. Many immigrant and refugee adults come from non-literate backgrounds, where they were never exposed to even the basics of learning to read and write like holding a pencil. Trying to teach this in a second language without the skills of the native tongue make it a long and hard process. Many are too busy or too tired or too poor to be able to find the time and resources to learn English. Many of them don’t have access to English language programs. Most of them are simply struggling to survive, which leaves precious little room for educational and personal goals.
I fear that when these bills get passed and turned into laws, we will be regressing into a country that turns its back on the foreigners amongst us. Not only will we be discriminating against people who are different from us, we will be doing it based on irrational fears. If the driver’s license laws really were about public safety, then non-literate English speakers should not be allowed to have the tests taken orally. Non-literate learners usually cope with their learning difficulties by developing other strategies—specifically picking up visual clues. The non-literate African refugees I work with can tell what street they are on by the sight of a certain tree or bus stop, and they can certainly understand what meaning the different road signs are trying to convey.
English is not and was never intended to be the national language of our country. Our forefathers specifically did not appoint a national language in honor of the diversity of people who settled in this land. As Christians, we should be at the forefront of those who strive to ensure this land continues to be a place of cultural diversity, where we welcome the foreigner and treat them with kindness. The precedent for this kind of action is based on Old Testament hospitality laws and the actions of Jesus that pointed to grace and mercy when dealing with the poor and unwanted in society. Instead of being afraid of immigrants and refugees, we should be actively befriending them and becoming involved in their lives. What if churches held more community English classes? What if we became a place to empower people to succeed and to break the chains of poverty and oppression that that often characterize the life of a non-English speaker? We are at the forefront of a cultural shift, and we have the power to extend grace and hospitality. Not only that, but it is what we were created to do.
Danielle Mayfield has her MA TESOL and is currently teaching adult ESL literacy classes in Portland, OR.