By Jason Allen, Scott Braddock & Ryan Crowe,

AUSTIN (CBSDFW.COM) – An Arlington State Senator is taking heat after asking a man testifying on immigration “Why aren’t you speaking in English, then?”

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Earlier this week State Senator Chris Harris interrupted Antonlin Aguirre’s testimony against Senate Bill 9, the so-called ‘sanctuary cities’ bill that would toughen restrictions on illegal immigrants.  The bill would cut funding from cities that tell police not to check immigration status of people they pull over.

Harris wanted to know why Aguirre addressed the committee hearing the bill in Spanish rather than English.  “If I understand him correctly, then he’s been here since 1988?” Harris asked after Aguirre described his experience.  “23 years. You’ve been here 23 years?”

When told Aguirre’s first language was Spanish, and that’s the language he felt comfortable speaking in, Harris said “It’s insulting to us. (pause) It’s very insulting.  If he needs to… if he knows English then he needs to be speaking it to us.”

The top ranking Republican Senator says the insult was to choose to speak Spanish when Aguirre admitted he knew some English.

KRLD’s Scott Braddock Reports:

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Some Hispanic activists said it was a disturbing reaction.

Lee Saldivar, who was in the hearing, said it reminded him of the days when Spanish was all but outlawed.

“I lived that. I went through that in junior high, and elementary and high school. Back then we *couldn’t speak Spanish, at all.”

But Harris supporters were quick to jump to his defense, saying it was insulting that Aguirre either chose to use Spanish, or was advised to, during a hearing on an issue that is already divisive.

“The frustration may have been, you’re being asked to speak in a language most of us don’t understand, when, you may not speak English the way we do but I bet we could understand you,” said Dianne Costa, the former mayor of Highland Village.

Sara Legvold, who came to the United States from Cuba as a child, said Harris really did the right thing.
“English is the language of success in this country. And if you want to get somewhere, you need to learn English.”

Harris’ staffers have backed his statements, saying they were “In no way meant to be derogatory.” In a statement to CBS 11 Harris’ staff said “This particular individual understood and spoke English, however, purposely chose to speak in Spanish for the audience. Senator Harris believed that this individual should be addressing the Texas Legislature using the English language.

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The House version of the “sanctuary cities” bill has yet to be taken up in the current special session.