ACLU and Illegal Immigration

I thought I’d address some of the comments on the previous posting about the Hazleton a case.

One person asked about the ACLU’s stance on illegal immigrants. The ACLU does not support illegal activity. That said, ALL people in this country–no matter what their status–have certain Constitutional and human rights. In fact, decisions spanning more than a century, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution’s guarantees apply to every person within U.S. borders, including “aliens whose presence in this country is unlawful.”

It’s worth noting that the Bill of Rights NEVER uses the word citizen–it uses the word “person.” This wasn’t an accident. (The word “citizen” is used in other parts of the Constitution.)

Of course, the federal government can find, arrest, and deport people who are here in violation of the federal immigration laws, provided they do so in a way that comports with the Constitution — for example the Fourth Amendment’s prohibitions on searches and seizures and the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process — and other federal laws. Similarly, the federal government can make, and has made, many lawful immigrants, as well as undocumented people, ineligible for certain welfare programs. However, there are legal and policy limits even in this area; we provide elementary education, emergency medical care, and other services to all persons regardless of status.

As for those who say people should learn English when they come to this country, they might want to do some research on a little island called Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans have been US citizens since 1917, and they just happen to speak Spanish.

(Thanks to Omar Jadwat at the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project and our staff attorney Mary Catherine Roper for help on this!)

Sara in Philly

11 thoughts on “ACLU and Illegal Immigration

  1. Constitutionally, is there any difference between a citizen and an illegal immigrant other than the fact that citizens can vote and become president?

  2. George-
    Sure, the privileges & immunities clause of paragraph 1 of the 14th amendment ony applies to citizens. Best to consult a treatise on the constitution to see what the practical effect is.

  3. arrest the illegals for illegally entering the country, throw them out and then give them the same rights as what they enjoy in their own country. you twist the constitution to suit your twisted interpretations.

  4. It was the Jones Act of 1917 that gave Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship, if anyone is interested. Puerto Rico is a Commonwealth, but it is not a U.S. State (yet–may never be), and it is self-governing. But they do not “just happen” to speak Spanish. Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony until 1898 when the U.S. invaded during the Spanish-American War, which Spain lost and had to cede Puerto Rico and other territories.

    The truth is, most Puerto Ricans who reside in the United States are fluent in both English and Spanish. Additionally, the majority of Puerto Ricans on the island are also highly competent in English and Spanish (bilingual), because English is compulsory in school up until college. Had you researched properly, instead of being spiteful, you would have picked a better example. Really, that last paragraph ruined this entire post, which was fairly well-thought out up until then.

    People who emigrate to the United States should certainly try to learn English so they may at least assimilate into their local society and get by with minimal trouble. And most immigrants do learn English, probably more out of necessity than anything else. Only morons and bigots would insist that all immigrants be utterly fluent in English, but some degree of competency in English is certainly beneficial for any nationalized citizen.

    That said, there is no harm in making Spanish compulsory for American children, either. It would do all American citizens a great service to be bilingual, especially if taught to elementary-age schoolchildren, who have the ability to soak up language skills that far surpass teenagers and adults.

  5. Thanks for your thoughts, bidge. I must confess that I don’t understand how my remarks about Puerto Rico were “spiteful.” I DID do my research (if you reread the post, you’ll note I included that same 1917 date that you mentioned). All I was trying to convey with “just happen to speak Spanish” was that people should be aware that there are US citizens whose native language is Spanish. I did not mean to imply that they don’t know English. I used Puerto Rico very deliberately as several of our clients are Puerto Rican, and our co-counsel is the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

  6. As for those who say people should learn English when they come to this country, they might want to do some research […]

    I simply think the above in italics might have been better phrased. Perhaps if it were posed as a question it would be taken as less aggressive, possibly less offensive. As it is, it weakens the entire post (which I maintain was excellent up until that point). The idea is to encourage dialogue, not to segregate based on opinion or belief. Indeed, the reason that most organizations fail (generally speaking, they don’t fail but they don’t quite succeed either) is because they are divisive and not inclusive. By posing it as a question, you engage rather than force others to disengage; you present rather than attack a portion of the population who disagree. You get people to truly think and not react based on cultural bias or emotion (which is key!). How can there be any progress, any real gains, any worthwhile dialogue if we can’t engage those who disagree and resort to “we know better” tactics? In the end, it’s all opinion, and the truth is that nobody is ever 100% correct in any situation. But if you hope to sway rather than chastise, the words you choose will go a long way towards acheiving your goals.

    That’s my point. Don’t take my word for it, though. Simply look at our elected leaders: the lack of proper discourse and petty toeing-the-party-line politics are killing progress. We need to encourage free thinking, not automaton-like “agree with us or be an outcast” tactics.

    I would think the ACLU, given its charter, would concur with my assertation. At least I would hope so…

  7. Bidge – Point well taken. I agree -it is better to engage rather than to take pot shots. (I must admit when blogging it’s very easy to fall into sarcasm….) Thanks for taking the time to write.

    Sara in Philly

  8. Thank you for replying to both of my comments. It’s all right, really. I’m not perfect, and I often stray into potshots when I’m worked up over something. I’ve got about 30 blog unpublished blog entries of rants that I hope never see the light of day. I’m only human.

    Best wishes.

  9. Bidge, your overall point is well-made.

    I would like to see a little more about the use of english in PR, though. My wife was born there and lived part of her childhood there, is a spanish teacher, and her parents still live there. I asked her once about the U.S. forcing its culture on PR, and she said that initially the U.S. tried to force english into the schools but the citizens of the island rejected it.

    One of the arguments that is used against statehood is, “They’ll make you speak english.” I’ve found that around the cities people we run into seem to know passable english but not so out in the countryside. I can’t speak to some in her family b/c my spanish is negligible and their english is the same.

    But all of this info is anecdotal and what she and her family tell me. Maybe there’s more info there that I can look into.

    Andy in Harrisburg

  10. I wonder…

    If Puerto Rico–with an approximate population of 4 million–became a state, would it then be impossible to declare English as the only official language of America? 4 million is only about 1% of the present US population of 300 million, but considering the rapidly growing bilingual Hispanic (Latino) population (to include those with heritages from Mexico and Cuba) throughout the US, the proportion of Spanish-speaking citizens would be significantly higher (sorry, I don’t have any figures on this). Also considering Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of America’s population, it seems very likely that in the future America will be a truly bilingual nation.


    What may also occur is a further [natural] evolution of the English language, incorporating more and more Spanish into everyday use, which is also completely acceptable. All languages evolve over time. Already there are usage differences between American English and British English, some slight and others significant. (This is also true within the U.S. from state to state, by the way.)

    I’m American living in London, and I had to “learn the language” of the country I live in. I’m still learning, though it’s not that difficult. I am assimiliating, I suppose. I grew up in New England, where a plurality of folk spoke French, and thereby it was customary for things like user guides and manuals to include both English and French instructions (I’m not sure if there is [was] a law mandating French on things, but I seem to recall there being one].

    Here in the UK, which is part of the EU, most products and guides sold are written in English, French, and German (at the very least, and often there are even more languages packed onto a pouch of cat food). The expense of producing the multilingual products is higher, and therefore things are often more expensive for the consumer.

    Yet from a completely practical standpoint, it makes good sense for a country to have one official language in which it governs, whatever language that may be. Imagine the taxpayer expense if everything (bills, laws, speeches, official documentation, et al) were produced in two or more languages. There would be inconsistencies between two supposedly “equal” documents simply due to the inherent differences between languages, thereby possibly creating yet another set of loopholes to be exploited. In English, one law says this, but in Spanish it says something slightly different (though they were meant to be identical). Our legal system, already strained by “interpretations”, would crumble.

    So, does a country need a unifying language so that all are treated equally under one set of laws?

    And what would happen if Puerto Rico became a state? It seems unlikely that the U.S. could enforce English-only in a culture that is predominantly Spanish and has been for a half-century. My supposition is that an exception would be made for Puerto Rico. Whether this turns out to be a good or bad thing is something only time will show. But I don’t see any harm in everyone learning Spanish (or French, or German, or Japanese…)

  11. I agree that illegal immigrants have the right to due process of law and nothing more. When the ACLU adopts that position I will renew my membership.

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