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Learn English, judge tells mothers

Warnings in Tenn. stir rights debate

LEBANON, Tenn. -- A judge hearing child abuse and neglect cases in Tennessee has given an unusual instruction to some immigrant mothers who have come before him: Learn English, or else.

Most recently, it was an 18-year-old woman from Oaxaca, Mexico, who had been reported to the Department of Children's Services for not immunizing her toddler and for missing appointments. At a hearing last month to monitor the mother's custody of the child, Wilson County Judge Barry Tatum instructed the woman to learn English and use birth control, The Lebanon Democrat newspaper reported.

Last October, Tatum gave a similar order to a Mexican woman who had been cited for neglect of her 11-year-old daughter, said a lawyer who is representing the woman in her appeal. Setting a court date six months away, the judge told the woman she should be able to speak English at a fourth-grade level by that meeting. If she failed, he warned, he would begin the process to terminate her parental rights.

''The court specially informs the mother that if she does not make the effort to learn English, she is running the risk of losing any connection -- legally, morally, and physically -- with her daughter forever," reads a court order from the hearing, according to Jerry Gonzalez, the Nashville lawyer who represents the woman.

Tatum's orders have provoked debate in this Tennessee community, which has seen an influx of non-English speakers over the past decade. Civil rights advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have alleged that Tatum's orders are discriminatory and unconstitutional. But many of Tatum's neighbors cheered the principle behind his actions, saying new immigrants should be encouraged to assimilate more fully into American life.

Juvenile court proceedings are often more informal than adult cases, and it is not unusual for judges to give lifestyle advice to parents who come before them in neglect or abuse cases. And, when written down and signed by the judge, the instructions take on the force of a court order.

Tatum did not respond to interview requests, but he has explained that he gave the orders in hope that the parents would make a greater effort to assimilate into American society, opening more opportunities for their children.

''Here we have an American citizen who runs the risk of losing out on all the opportunities if she's not assimilated into the culture," he told The Lebanon Democrat.

He said he has never removed a child from a parent because the parent did not speak English.

In Lebanon, a city 20 miles east of Nashville with a population of little more than 20,000, it was once rare to hear a foreign accent, much less a foreign language.

Now Lebanon is home to more than 1,200 foreign-born agricultural and manufacturing workers.

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