At a time when illegal immigration has become a divisive national issue, the tiny sign above the bright orange tile at a local culinary institution has sharpened the debate in a neighborhood founded by Italian immigrants. Though some civic leaders are appalled, many Geno's customers insist that everyone in America should speak English — and express themselves freely." Hey, what happened to freedom of speech?" customer Al Buck asked Tuesday, clutching a hot cheesesteak and sporting a T-shirt with a red, white and blue message: " Welcome to America — Now Speak English." [Joey] Vento, 66, has said the sign is aimed at illegal immigrants in a community where the Mexican population has grown in recent years. He told the Associated Press on Monday that the sign would remain, even if the city fined him. " They would have to handcuff me and take me out because I'm not taking it down," he said. City Councilman James F. Kenney has called the sign "divisive and mean-spirited," not to mention "bad for the neighborhood and bad for tourism." The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, concerned about the city's image, reminded everyone that the city values immigrants' "culture, vibrancy and history." A Philadelphia Inquirer editorial called Vento's policies "boneheaded," which may explain why he is no longer speaking to the newspaper, or any newspaper.Vento's got the support of some of his customers, in any case:
The line at Geno's spilled into the street and blocked the sidewalk, serenaded by speakers that played "God Bless America" and the Marine Corps hymn. Several customers said they dropped by Tuesday to have a look at the sign. It was difficult to spot amid the photos of celebrities who have downed Geno's cheesesteaks (Bill Clinton, Rudolph Giuliani, Shaquille O'Neal); police and firefighter badges; and patriotic posters, including one with the words "Proud to Be an American." Lan Le, 38, a Newport Beach resident who was gnawing on a Geno's cheesesteak, said she spoke no English when she arrived in the U.S. from Vietnam at age 11. Her husband, Roman Le, said he spoke no English when he arrived from Germany at age 6." If people come to America, they ought to learn English, like I did," Lan Le said. Her husband added: " I had to learn it. It's not that hard."Natasha Milosevich, who came to the U.S. from Yugoslavia 35 years ago, said she dined at Geno's to show her support." This guy is being crucified for saying something a lot of us believe," Milosevich said. "This is a free country. If you don't like the sign, you can go back home."The Washington Post ran the story last week. This Philadelphia Inquirer article ran the week before. For the Inquirer's editorial denouncing Vento's policies, click here. For the photo of the sign, click here.