Thursday, February 17, 2005

Learn English or We'll Take Your Kids

According to this article, a family court judge in Tennessee has been ordering immigrant women to learn English or risk losing custody of their children. The most recent woman had been brought before him on relatively trivial charges: failing to immunize her child and missing some doctor's appointments. These are, needless to say, not things for which a middle-class white woman would be hauled into family court. The judge has told the woman that unless she can speak English at a fourth-grade level in six months, he will consider revoking custody. He also ordered her to use birth control, something that may well be against her religion. Lovely.

Now, I believe that immigrants to the U.S. should learn English. It's a vital skill to survive and get ahead in this society. Frankly, I've never met an immigrant who felt differently. But, as anyone who's tried to do it can attest, learning a language is not that easy. It takes a lot of time and effort. And this woman is facing a lot of burdens on her time, such as work and childcare responsibilities. Something will have to give, and you can bet that whatever it is, her child will suffer. This is a stupid, bigoted, punitive decision that goes against the very things that family court tries to accomplish: looking after the best interests of the child. It is not in the child's best interest to be neglected by her mother. Nor is it in the child's best interests to be wrenched away from her family because they happen to be immigrants. Hopefully, the mother will eventually learn English. If not, the child surely will anyway, as children have throughout American history. But this threat isn't going to help matters.

More than that, I suspect this isn't really about the best interests of the child. It's about the judge's attitudes about immigrants. He's not trying to protect the child: he's attempting to use her as leverage to get the mother to behave the way he wants her to. And that's a huge abuse of his power. There's really only one child abuser in this scenario, and it's not the mother.

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