Outside editorial: Speak English or be fired?

Posted: Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Virginia Sen. Ken Cuccinelli Jr., R-Fairfax, has introduced a piece of immigrant-bashing legislation that is meant to ease the way for bosses to fire workers who don't speak English. But the bill is so closed-minded and foul-tempered that it is too much for Cuccinelli himself. It would victimize employees who fail "to speak only English at the workplace," a formulation even the senator now allows is a bit harsh; who knows, maybe his own ancestors were known to utter a phrase or two in their native Italian on the job. So he has decided to remove the word "only" from his bill. Nice, but it doesn't help.

The senator, long regarded as among the more intolerant lawmakers in Richmond, has outdone himself. He says glibly that the bill responds to a growing problem of employees who are unfit for their jobs because they speak English poorly. The rub, he says, is that employers cannot fire them without risking higher taxes to pay unemployment benefits. His evidence? Well, says the senator, an employer complained to him about it. And who was that employer? Cuccinelli can't recall.

The senator's porous memory notwithstanding, his legislation highlights a few pertinent facts about the immigration debate:

First, xenophobia. Despite their protestations, the anti-immigrant crowd tends to blur the line between legal and illegal immigrants and tar them with the same brush. Although Cuccinelli spent much of his campaign for the state Senate last fall bashing illegal immigrants, this bill would apply only to legal immigrants, since illegal immigrants are already ineligible for unemployment benefits.

Second, overzealousness. Cuccinelli's bill rates poor English as an offense on a par with substance abuse, lying about past criminal convictions, missing work and committing infractions that cost an employer his business license - all of them equal grounds for denying unemployment benefits to a fired worker. That's absurd on its face.

Third, blame-shifting. Clearly, it is an employer's responsibility to hire workers whose skills match the job. Yet Cuccinelli's bill would perversely penalize workers, not employers. This is grossly unfair.

Immigrant-bashers, even some who pay homage to America as a nation of immigrants, have a rich and ugly history in this country. Today, a venomous new chapter is being written by lawmakers of Cuccinelli's ilk, for whom the very presence of people whose language, culture and values are different is a firing offense.



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