In a 1968 survey of the enforcement of federal civil rights laws, the US Commission on Civil Rights declared that "Civil rights laws now apply in almost every area in which the federal government has responsibilities. It is not so much new laws that are required today as a strengthened capacity to make existing laws work." My dissertation shows that regulatory agencies are critical sites of policy-making, and even rights-making, for immigrants and non-English speakers and that they are instrumental to making civil rights laws work.
The dissertation asks how rights expand in the new civil rights era and why they expand to varying extents in different policy arenas. More specifically, it asks what politics and strategies are used to expand on existing civil rights statutes in order to create new civil rights. It uses the development of language rights as a lens into understanding processes of statutory interpretation and regulatory implementation directed at the political incorporation of immigrants. It compares the robustness of language rights produced by this politics of regulation by tracing the interpretation of "national origin" and "language minority" protections in education, employment, and voting.
The dissertation adopts a historical institutionalist perspective on legal change and path dependence and compares three case studies of policy innovation pertaining to language rights. First, the US Department of Education's interpretation of Title VI largely succeeded in its attempt to establish a right for national origin minority students with limited English proficiency to receive meaningful access to education regardless of language ability. Second, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was less successful in its efforts to find similar language rights for limited English proficient workers under Title VII. Third, in contrast to a regulatory approach, Congress amended the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to include express protections for "language minorities."
My explanation for why rights expanded in all three policy arenas, albeit to different degrees in each of the institutional contexts, is that regulatory constructions of the civil rights requirements contributed to a transformation of norms and expectations surrounding language access. Bureaucratic entrepreneurs within civil rights enforcement agencies used informal policy guidance to construct regulatory rights. Deference from courts and other institutions to these regulatory assertions imparted legal effect to these regulatory constructions and contributed to variations in the strength of regulatory rights.