MALDEF

Rhode Island Store Owner Threatens to Call ICE on Hispanic Customers - VIDEO

In March 2008, José Genao and a friend went to a Rhode Island heating equipment supply store to buy a spare part for his boiler. While the owner, David Richardson, searched his inventory for the part, Genao and his friend began speaking to each other in Spanish. As Mr. Richardson was ringing up Mr. Genao’s purchase, he demanded to see the customers’ Social Security cards.

The Providence Journal reports:
When Genao told Richardson “he did not have the right to ask all those questions,” Richardson pulled out a membership card for Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, a group that seeks curbs on illegal immigration.

Then, he lifted the phone receiver and threatened to call immigration authorities, Genao said. “He [Richardson] grabbed the phone and said, ‘I can call ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] anytime I see an illegal immigrant,’” said Genao. “He also said, ‘I can make a citizen’s arrest.’

Genao, a Rhode Island state employee, is a native of the Dominican Republic and a U.S. citizen. He speaks fluent English. He said his friend — who declined comment — is also a Dominican native and U.S. citizen. “There is no problem with his status,” said Genao. “He is legal.” State records list both as registered voters.

“I wanted to see the Social Security number from the one who wasn’t speaking English,” said Richardson. “I just kind of mentioned I’d like to see his Social Security card. And he kinda balked. He left and walked out the door.” When the friend returned to urge Genao to leave, Richardson added, “he started to speak in English. That surprised me.”

[...]

Richardson said he has asked for customers’ Social Security numbers if they do not speak English well, and estimated that he has done so “fifteen or twenty times.” At first, Richardson said he has refused to do business with some people who declined to show him a Social Security card. He subsequently denied that, and said he had asked people for their cards “maybe 10 times in the last five years.”

Though Richardson said it is his legal right to demand a Social Security card — it may not be.

Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Richardson appears to have violated a state law (R.I. General Law 6-13-17) related to “unfair sales practices."

[...]
 
Brown said the law, “designed to protect consumers’ rights, generally prohibits businesses from requiring customers to disclose their Social Security number. The law contains both criminal and civil penalties.” In Brown’s opinion, “by demanding that this customer present his Social Security card, the owner clearly ran afoul of that law.”

Brown said Richardson’s actions “also appear to clearly violate state laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race or national origin in places of public accommodation. There can be little question that this customer was singled out for discriminatory and humiliating treatment based on his national origin. Store owners have a legal obligation to serve all customers, and threatening to arrest a customer for speaking Spanish and for refusing to show a Social Security card is precisely the type of discriminatory conduct that the state’s ‘public accommodations’ law was meant to bar.”1
Myths:

Individuals who speak Spanish in the United States are generally undocumented immigrants. Store owners generally can, without fear of legal consequence, require Spanish-speaking customers to show Social Security cards before serving them.

Fact:

Business owners who demand Social Security Cards and refuse to serve Spanish-speaking customers run significant risks of violating state, federal, and municipal civil rights laws against national origin discrimination. Federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin in privately owned business facilities such as restaurants, hotels, theaters, and retail stores. (42 U.S.C. § 2000). In addition, civil rights laws in most states and many cities also prevent business owners from discriminating on the basis of national origin (by requiring customers to show Social Security cards before being served, for example). In Rhode Island and many other states, both civil damages and criminal penalties may result from national origin discrimination.

In addition, business owners (and all Americans) should keep in mind that the majority of U.S. Spanish-speakers are not undocumented immigrants. Spanish is spoken at home by about 34 million U.S. residents aged 5 or older.2  This figure is far larger than the size of the undocumented immigrant population (~12 million). Also, more than the half of individuals living in Spanish-speaking homes say they also speak English “very well.” 3  Therefore, most U.S. residents who speak Spanish are bilingual or multilingual citizens or legal immigrants.

Also, in case there is any doubt, research is clear that Latinos highly value learning English. The vast majority (88%) of second generation Latinos speak English very well, a figure that rises to 94% by the third generation.4  92% of Latinos believe that “teaching English to the children of immigrant families” is “very important.”5  In fact, maintaining fluency in Spanish is often a challenge for second and third generation Hispanics. Just 11% of second generation Latino adults and 6% of third-generation Latinos speak only Spanish in the home.6

The Rhode Island incident described above illustrates that anti-immigrant rhetoric has inflamed anti-Hispanic tension such that ignorant store owners are mistakenly targeting Latino citizens for discrimination. In so doing, owners and operators of retail establishments make themselves vulnerable to private lawsuits, civil fines, and potential criminal penalties.

Meanwhile, the truth is that Spanish is spoken in the United States mostly by U.S. citizens and legal immigrants.


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1. Karen Lee Ziner. "Store owner asks to see shoppers' Social Security cards." The Providence Journal, March 12, 2008
2. "Language Spoken at Home By Ability to Speak English for the Population 5 Years and Older." 2006 American Community Survey. U.S. Census Bureau
3. Id.
4. Shirin Hakimzadeh and D'Vera Cohn. "English Usage Among Hispanics in the United States." Pew Hispanic Center, Novemeber 29, 2007
5. "Hispanic Attitudes Toward Learning English." Pew Hispanic Center, June 7, 2006
6. Supra note 4

Copyright 2009 MALDEF — Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund