Diversity key to equality for ALL
PHRC offers historical view on immigration debate
By Stephen A. Glassman
PA Human Relations Commission
There has been much in the news recently about illegal immigrants and efforts on the national, state and local levels to restrict their access to both private and governmental services. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission is concerned by both the content and the tenor of these arguments, particularly here in Pennsylvania. As Chairperson of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, I feel it is important for the Commission to weigh in on this important issue.
The Commission enforces Pennsylvania’s laws that prohibit both governmental and private discrimination in the areas of employment, housing and commercial property, education and public accommodations. The public accommodations provisions include services provided by the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions, as well as by the private sector. The protected classes contained in our state’s anti-discrimination laws include, among others, race, color, ancestry and national origin. The Commission also is responsible for addressing situations involving racial and ethnic tension, and for promoting equal opportunity and good will among all who visit or reside in Pennsylvania.
As a law enforcement agency, the Commission does not, of course, condone or support illegal immigration. The Commission, however, does view the current policy debate on immigration through a specific historical lens. The Commission just celebrated its 50th anniversary. In 1956, if you were African American, Jewish, a woman, or from any number of non-European countries, you had difficulty finding employment, were excluded from renting or owning a home in many neighborhoods, and were often forced to attend schools that were either physically segregated or educationally inferior. Daily life activities, that we now take for granted, were denied to many through ignorance, rudeness, overt hostility and humiliation or, often, outright exclusion.
The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has sought to insure that a person’s race, skin color, national origin, or ancestry did not result in such patently unfair discrimination. Unfortunately, those who are different from the majority, who are the most disenfranchised and the least able to protect or speak for themselves, are the ones most likely to become the targets of discrimination. Immigrants are simply the current target, whether they are Hispanic, Asian, African, or Middle Eastern. They are not the first. They will, unfortunately, not be the last.
The Commission’s assessment of various legislative initiatives and, more pointedly, our assessment of the tone and tenor of much of the public debate, suggests that the impetus for action comes from the same type of prejudice and fear that has had such demonstrable and unfortunate consequences in the past. Much of the proposed legislation and public debate is centered on punishing both those who are here illegally and those who provide them with employment, food and housing. Inevitably, these laws will unfairly ensnare many individuals who are living here legally and will encourage aggressive behavior against anyone perceived to be an illegal immigrant.
Reform, to be truly effective, must be broader in its approach; punitive action, alone, will not solve the problem. It will simply encourage people to “obey” these new laws by treating anyone who looks or sounds “foreign” as if they are also “illegal.” This is not only bad social policy. It is also unlawful under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act and other state and federal laws.
States and municipalities should not be focused on passing legislation concerning the rights of illegal immigrants. This is a uniquely federal issue which should be dealt with on the national level. Current federal legislation likely already preempts or prohibits the passage of state or local laws relating to this issue.
If state and local legislators must get involved, they have a duty to clearly articulate the precise problems which need to be solved. The Commission believes that a thorough analysis of the health, safety, economic, social, and cultural consequences of most of the legislative proposals being made on illegal immigration in Pennsylvania will show that they may in fact be unconstitutional and are likely to do more harm than good. This is also true for the various “English Only” laws being proposed in Pennsylvania.
These laws have been presented in conjunction with legislation that intends to discourage illegal immigration. This is an unfortunate and inappropriate association, as restrictions on the use of languages other than English will be detrimental to all residents, including many people who are American citizens and/or who are legally residing in Pennsylvania communities. Puerto Ricans, for example, are US citizens by birth and their official language is Spanish.
Legitimate concerns about immigration reform ought to be addressed. But they should be discussed in an environment that is founded on shared democratic principles of respect and inclusion. This Commonwealth was founded and has prospered on such principles. If, as it appears, the focus is on the status of those immigrants who have not arrived in this country through a legally approved process, any legislative action should be clearly limited to address this concern on the narrowest terms possible and on terms that minimize possible adverse consequences on a Commonwealth full of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants who are here legally.
It is also imperative that any new legislative action include provisions that would penalize those who, under the guise of seeking to comply with the new laws, intentionally or unintentionally engage in discrimination against individuals simply because of their ancestry or because they may look or sound like they were not born here.
The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission continues to lead Pennsylvanians in our collective struggle to achieve equal rights for all. In doing so we recognize that, at its core, this continuing struggle involves learning to appreciate, respect, and value the contributions of others — not only those who are most like us, but also those who are most different from us.