This is America: Speak whatever language you want

This is America: Speak whatever language you want
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On Feb. 14, 2019 — coincidentally, Language Advocacy Day — the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against U.S. Customs and Border Protection on behalf of Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez. The two U.S. citizens were detained on May 16, 2018, by a Border Patrol agent who overheard them speaking in Spanish in a convenience store in Havre, Montana. When asked why he needed to see their ID, the agent responded that “it has to do with you guys speaking Spanish in the store, in a state where it’s predominantly English-speaking.”

The episode gained notoriety after Ms. Suda posted a video of their interaction with the agent on Facebook. Her motivation to go public with the story at the time was to instill pride in her daughter for being bilingual—to show her that, in spite of what had happened to her mother, she should not be afraid of using Spanish in public.


The story is a painful reminder of the language choices that multilingual families face for the sake of integration. As the ACLU complaint alleges, “America is a multi-lingual, multi-racial, and multi-ethnic country. Many United States citizens speak languages other than English. So do many non-citizens who have a right or permission to be in this country under our laws.” And yet for many language minorities — largely Native Americans and first- and second-generation immigrants — speaking languages other than English in public is still seen as suspect.

On the surface, public attitudes towards bilingualism have changed from previous generations. Schools no longer slap kids for speaking Spanish. However, not all forms of bilingualism are equally valued. Elite bilingualism and multiculturalism enjoy a fair amount of cultural cachet. But for racialized linguistic minorities, the pressure to assimilate at all costs, starting with language, is still all too present.

Sometimes, like in Montana, the message comes from overzealous law enforcement agents. We have all seen its most hateful manifestation in viral videos of deli customersWalmart shoppersrestaurant patrons, or road-raged drivers. More often, these messages come from well-intentioned but misinformed neighbors concerned about kids getting confused between languages or suffering speech delays; from an educational system that hides its language ideology behind terms such as language gap or skill deficit; from professors chiding foreign students for not speaking English. And sometimes the message comes from people in positions of power such as the previous White House Chief of Staff, or the President. Their cumulative effect is the same — they demoralize linguistic minorities and chip away at the will to preserve linguistic heritage.

To be sure, Border Patrol agents do have the authority to question individuals, and they can even operate immigration checkpoints within 100 miles of the border. At the time, some reasoned that the agent’s initial impulse to check their IDs was justified given the proximity of the town of Havre to the Canadian border and the recent spike in migratory border crossings of the U.S.-Canada border. After all, they argued, the two were never arrested, and they were free to go after everything was cleared. No harm done.

What the CBP agent did not have, however, was reasonable suspicion of an immigration violation or crime, which is needed for CBP to stop or search anybody.


In his own words, the only probable “crime” was speaking Spanish while waiting in line to pay for milk and eggs. Mind you, not any other language, just Spanish — a point the agent pretty much conceded by acknowledging on camera he would not have asked for ID if they had been speaking French. In addition to the Fourth Amendment, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act protects everybody from discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin. If a border patrol agent detains you with no probable cause other than speaking Spanish, that is a violation of your civil rights.

It is true that compared with the heinous policy of family separation at the Southern border or the detention centers for undocumented minors, this encounter was relatively uneventful. But language harassment does harm. It further intimidates and marginalizes the most fragile among language minorities who, unlike Ms. Suda and Ms. Hernandez — safe in the relative protection awarded by their citizenship status — have neither the awareness nor the means to take legal action.

How many families stick to English in public to avoid harassment? How many choose not to report hate incidents when law enforcement agencies engage in this kind of discrimination? The answer is that countless cases go unnoticed or under-reported.

For Spanish speakers who fear what might happen to their immigration status, who have limited English proficiency, or who are working multiple jobs, exercising their language rights can be quite costly. Nearly 40 percent of Latinxs have experienced some form of harassment. Hate crimes are up by over 10 percent in the 10 largest cities, with Latinxs more likely to become victims of a hate crime than non-Hispanic whites or African-Americans. In spite of these figures, only about half of hate-crime victims choose to report, in part because the odds of the crime being prosecuted are low, and in part because of risks involved.

While few cases are as blatantly discriminatory as this episode in Montana, instances of language harassment are not isolated incidents. Close to one in five Latinxs, regardless of citizen status, has heard a variation of “This is America! Speak English!” But it is never about us speaking English, because most of us do already — it is about us not speaking Spanish. And as Ana Suda astutely points out, it is about kids not learning it.

Good for Ana Suda for refusing to pass along that lesson to her daughter. No amount of lobbying in Washington is as powerful an example of language advocacy as hers.

Roberto Rey Agudo is Language Program Director in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth College and a 2018 Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project.