The federal government and the court system have deemed variations of the phrase “go back to where you came from” when used by employees to be discriminatory.
Since President Donald Trump tweeted that four progressive Democratic congresswomen of color “who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe” should “go back to where” they “came from” last Sunday, the President has insisted his comments were not racist. The four minority lawmakers he referenced — Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — are all American citizens. Three of the four were born in the United States.
While Trump is not the employer of these four congresswomen and therefore likely not subject to laws governing their work environment, the federal government has deemed the phrase he used to be discriminatory.
CNN reviewed several complaints filed with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and found a few where similar language to what Trump used was considered evidence of discrimination in the workplace. The EEOC is a part of the federal government that enforces federal law to make sure employees are not discriminated against for their gender, sex, national origin or age.
In 2007, the commission sued a company on behalf of a Muslim car salesperson of Indian descent who was repeatedly called “Taliban” and told that he should “just go back where [he] came from.” EEOC also alleged a manager told the defendant “[t]his is America . . . not the Islamic country where you come from.”
The 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals sided with EEOC’s claim that the salesperson was subjected to a hostile work environment based on his national origin and religion. The court cited the example of use of the phrase several times in rendering its decision. The case is cited on EEOC’s website in a section where it specifically lists the comment “go back to where you came from” as an example of “potentially unlawful conduct.”
In another case, EEOC filed a lawsuit against a California hospital on behalf of 70 Filipino-American hospital workers. The hospital workers alleged that they were the targets of harassing comments. Some Filipino-American workers were told they would be arrested if they did not speak English and were told to go back to the Philippines.
The hospital settled the case in 2012 agreeing to pay nearly $1 million dollars in the EEOC national origin discrimination suit.
New York University, one of the largest private universities in the country, agreed to pay $210,000 to settle a race and national origin harassment and retaliation lawsuit filed by the EEOC. In 2011, the commission alleged that NYU violated federal law by subjecting a Ghanaian-born employee to a hostile work environment that included “degrading verbal harassment.” Settling a case is not necessarily an admission of wrongdoing.
According to the EEOC’s suit, the supervisor of the mailroom in NYU’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library regularly addressed the employee, a native of Ghana, with slurs like “monkey” and “gorilla” and insults such as “go back to your cage.”
In a 2006 case between a postal worker and a coworker, the postal worker said she faced discrimination in the workplace after a coworker said, “If you can’t speak English, you don’t belong here. Learn to speak better or go back to your own country.” In this case, the EEOC found sufficient evidence to make a harassment claim.
CNN legal analyst Laura Coates said Trump’s tweets, “although obviously racist to the public,” may not be unlawful in the case of the President.
“The EEOC guidelines are clear but they relate to employment,” Coates said. “Congress doesn’t work for the President. I’m not sure they could use the same claim of a hostile work environment based on a political atmosphere.”