Speak American!

Many things bother me about attitudes toward immigration. I understand, at least to some extent, concerns people have about unemployment, cultural identity, and the change–I don’t agree with it, but I can at least understand where they’re coming from. But the one thing I will never get are those people who freak the frick out when it comes to language.

The latest example that I’ve seen was in this Los Angeles Times article that discusses the Homeland Security plan to create a “tough pathway” for undocumented workers to gain legal status. Shockingly, there are people opposed to this plan, citing economic concerns (surprise) and the fear that this is merely code for “blanket amnesty.” Because, you know, every gun control measure is going to lead to firearms being banned, every pro-choice decision is going to lead to mandatory abortions, and the possibility of undocumented immigrants achieving amnesty will lead to automatic citizenship for everyone in the whole entire world (and also the V’s and moon martians). Whatever.

Honestly, that didn’t even throw me off too badly–these are far from original talking points. But what did throw me off was when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano explained that “the ‘tough pathway’ to legal status would require illegal immigrants to register, pay a fine, pass a criminal background check, pay all taxes and learn English.”

Register? Makes sense? A fine? Yeah, whatever. Pass a criminal background check? Sure. But the English thing really trips me up.

The so-called “English-only” legislation has a wonderful, xenophobic history in the United States, but the movement really took hold in the 1980s and 1990s when legislation was passed in a number of states decreeing that English was the official language. Granted, of those states passing the legislation, most did not have a large Spanish-speaking population (or any other linguistic minority). In fact, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia passed laws making English the official language, and each of those states had a Latino/a population of less than one percent. Wow, what a victory. Way to go. In history we’ll put that right in between me fighting off those invisible dinosaurs and John Chaney of Columbus, Ohio, finding that penny. Score!

It continued through the 1990s, most notably with California’s Proposition 227, which mandated that all students in public schools must be taught only in English (essentially setting Latino/a students back rather than teaching bilingual classes until those students learned English on their own). Even today, it still rears its nasty head every once in a while when people want to drum up support in a midterm election (often accompanied by some flag-burning amendment). You can drape English-only laws in the language of patriotism, but this type of legislation is only enforcing the idea that the Spanish language (and bilingualism in general) are markers of being nonWhite and excluding those populations from having a voice in today’s society.

Two thoughts on why this casual mention of requiring English is ridiculous. First, the state laws are basically symbolic, designed to intimidate a minority population into feeling uneasy, unwelcome, and far outside the power structure. Hegemonically, it’s genius, but it’s ultimately short-sighted. Ask California Republicans how their nativist legislation panned out in the 1990s.

Secondly, it’s stupid. Sorry to be trite, but it is incredibly stupid and I can’t think of another word offhand. It’s stupid. Look back at some of the drastic lingual action taken in the past:

• Sauerkraut makers re-named their product “liberty cabbage during World War I. Stupid.

• In Australia, during World War I, the countritinent re-named 69 of its towns because they had German names. Stupid.

• Calling french fries “Freedom Fries” because France didn’t want to go to war against Iraq. Weapons-grade stupid.

This is no different. Years from now, we’ll all think it’s stupid (kind of like fashion from the 90s or popped collars). Look, English is just one language in the vast marketplace of languages. It’s not sacred or special just because we speak it. It happens to be one of the languages that widely recognized and spoken, and I’m sure a number of immigrants are going to learn English on their own in order to compete economically with other U.S. residents. It might be strongly advised, but it shouldn’t be required. And even if it was, how does that work? Do these individuals have to speak in English at all times? Or only when they’re out in public? What happens if they don’t? Absolutely ridiculous.

Oh, and if we’re going to have English-only laws, then all citizens should have to pass English tests, and if they fail then those individuals will be kicked out of the country.



Hmmmm….Maybe this English-Only idea isn’t so bad after all…