President Donald Trump’s second pick to head the Labor Department has a long career in public service, but very little of it has to do with labor law or workplace policy-making.
Labor Department veterans are not sure what to expect from Alexander Acosta, Bloomberg’s Josh Eidelson reported Tuesday, with one declaring that “the jury is out on who he is.”
Senators will peer into that void in earnest for the first time on Wednesday, when Acosta faces the Health, Energy, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee for a confirmation hearing.
His thin record on labor law issues may prompt volleys of hypotheticals — or it might steer members toward other corners of his resume. Democrats wary of Trump’s radical approach to executive power may take a particular interest in Acosta’s role in the willful sabotage of a key Department of Justice agency in the mid-2000s.
But one bullet point on the nominee’s federal service record is likely to make Democrats smile — and some Republicans groan. Acosta’s first stint in government work could put him on the wrong side of a Republican Party now galvanized by Trump’s hardline anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric.
Since 2003, the federal government has required organizations that take taxpayer money to offer translation services for people with limited English proficiency who seek their services. Hospitals, legal aid organizations, public benefits administrators, and other public servants cannot ignore language barriers to the disadvantage of non-English speakers.
Known as “limited English proficiency (LEP)” guidelines, the rules were initially mandated by President Bill Clinton’s Executive Order 13166, issued in his final year in office. Instead of revoking it, President Bush instructed his Justice Department to act on the idea.
As a Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General within the Civil Rights Division, that task fell to Acosta. Or perhaps it is better to say he took to it with vigor.
“It was not a done deal…and he had a lot to do with it coming out that way. That was a big issue for him.”
“He was very big into the LEP regulations,” Republican lawyer Bob Driscoll told ThinkProgress. Driscoll, who worked with Acosta in the Bush DOJ and has since represented right-wing mascots from Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio to fellow ex-DOJer J. Christian Adams, recalls Acosta as an active and motivated crafter of the policy rather than an aloof delegator of the work.
“It was not a done deal that it would come out the way it did, and he had a lot to do with it coming out that way,” said Driscoll. “That was a big issue for him.”
Acosta’s work on the LEP rule helped earn him accolades from civil rights organizations that are now viewed as enemies by the hard-line anti-immigrant organizations that rank among Trump’s strongest boosters. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), for example, recognized Acosta with its Excellence in Government Service Award in 2003.
Acosta’s enthusiasm for ensuring eligible people can access services regardless of their English proficiency has already clouded his nomination for some anti-immigration hardliners.
One right-wing rag described “amnesty alarm bells” ringing in conservative circles over Trump’s back-up labor pick, lifting language from an old National Review piece blasting Acosta’s links to those who “see nothing wrong with making Spanish coequal with English in the United States.” Another detailed objections to Acosta from FAIR, the decades-old nativist organization designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. A third asserted that Acosta went behind President Bush’s back to solidify the LEP rules without ever getting actual White House approval for the policy.
Language training and multilingual citizenship more generally are always hot-button issues within immigration debates. Supporters of immigration crackdowns often delineate between “good” immigrants who work to learn their new country’s language and assimilate into its culture, and “bad” foreigners who fill the air with strange-sounding words.
But while the languages immigrants speak continue to be live wires in public discourse, American public policy around language-based access and discrimination issues is a largely settled topic — thanks in no small part to Acosta’s work in the early 2000s. Some Trump supporters hope the current president will shake that up, as he has tried to do with so many other long-ago-resolved questions of government policy.
The right-wing Americans for Legal Immigation PAC (ALIPAC) asked Trump to endorse legislation deeming English the country’s official language during the campaign. ProEnglish, one of several non-profit groups founded by white nationalist John Tanton, waited just two weeks after Election Day before calling on Trump to revoke the Clinton-era Executive Order which Bush and Obama maintained. It celebrated Trump’s choice of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General on the grounds that Sessions supports making English the national language.
While Trump has not commented on the Clinton-era EO or on Acosta’s advocacy for it at the Bush DOJ, he has given these groups every reason to think his ears are open. He attacked Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish in some campaign spots during the Republican primary, then explained that “while we’re in this nation, we should be speaking English.” His campaign never published Spanish versions of his online campaign materials, as has become standard in U.S. politics.
All this sets up an unusual political moment in the unruly Trump era. After original nominee Andy Puzder withdrew his name under intense scrutiny of his company’s alleged exploitation of fast food workers and his own record of domestic violence allegations, Acosta’s name smoothed political waters.
But Trump’s nominee may just prove to be a tougher sell for Republicans than Democrats. The president’s most impassioned Democratic critics haven’t yet kicked up a fuss about Acosta. AFL-CIO head Rich Trumka welcomed his nomination immediately.
Acosta’s record puts Republicans in a political no-man’s land, caught between their president and the nativist vitriol that gave him power.