Senator ‘insulted’ by Spanish language in immigration hearing

June 17th, 2011 at 4:17 pm by under Politics

Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington (Courtesy: Texas Senate)

For weeks, Antolin Aguirre said he’s had a tough time explaining to his five children why some Texas lawmakers want to create a law he feels targets his community. Now, he also has to tell them why one Senator in particular singled out his Spanish-language testimony against the so-called sanctuary cities bill as “insulting.”

“Sometimes I don’t have many answers,” Aguirre told KXAN. “The senators and representatives are supposed to represent us.”

The bill would allow police to verify the immigration status of people they detain. Supporters say it will help combat illegal immigration. Critics say it could lead to racial profiling and also discriminate against Hispanics – even the ones living here legally, like Aguirre.

Aguirre said he moved to Texas from Mexico in 1988 and became a U.S. citizen in 2001. However, when he decided to testify as part of the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition’s stance against Senate Bill 9, he said he felt needed an interpreter – to make sure the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee members understood his message clearly.

“I feel comfortable to speak Spanish to express how I feel about this bill that will destroy family because of the color of our skin,” he said to KXAN.

Nearly two minutes into Aguirre’s testimony Monday, Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, interrupted.

“Did I understand him correctly that he has been here since 1988?” Harris asked. “Why aren’t you speaking in English then?”

The interpreter explained Aguirre felt more comfortable speaking in Spanish since it was his first time testifying.

“It is insulting to us,” Harris then said. “It is very insulting. And if he knows English, he needs to be speaking in English.”

A brief commotion erupted from the audience, with some people even “booing” the Senator’s comments. Another lawmaker soon interjected.

“As individuals come forward and speak their personal point of view about how they feel about things, Senators are also entitled to speak their personal point of view but may not be speaking for everybody, as well,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Watson then looked at Aguirre and said, “Please continue your testimony.”

Aguirre paused, looked at back and forth at the people around him for reassurance, then continued the last bit of his statement – once again, in Spanish.

“No one was insulting that day except for Sen. Harris,” said Cristina Parker of the Border Network for Human Rights, who was in the audience during the hearing. “I thought this bill was about security, making the streets safer. This is an underlying tone, a personal insult, and perceived notions about what an American is.”

Harris’ spokesperson, Kristen Webb, later explained the Senator’s comments “were in no way meant to be derogatory.”

“This particular individual understood and spoke English, however, purposely chose to speak in Spanish for the audience,” said Webb. “Sen. Harris believed that this individual should be addressing the Texas Legislature using the English language.”

The bill passed the committee that day and the full Senate later in the week. The House is expected to vote on it next week.

“Sen. Harris continues to support the passage of SB 9 which will prevent Texas cities from directly or indirectly harboring illegal immigrants,” Webb added. “This legislation creates a uniform standard across the state that will make Texas safer.”

“It’s not good for Texas or for anybody,” Aguirre said. “I don’t want to argue with (Harris), but we have freedom of speech. This bill is anti-immigrant and anti-Latino. Sen. Harris is just the start of what will happen to us.”

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