US: English as official language a separate issue from immigration policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Jun 7 13:46:00 UTC 2007


English as official language apart from immigration policy Posted by the Asbury
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Of all the questions fielded by the Democratic presidential hopefuls during
Sunday's New Hampshire debate, at least one should never have been asked. In
fact, to their credit, a pair of candidates had the good sense to reject it
out of hand. Moderator Wolf Blitzer wanted to know if any of the candidates
believed that English should be the official language of the United States.
He posed that question after a series of others on immigration and framed it
as "related" to that issue.

It isn't. You might argue that language is part of the current debate since
Congress is considering whether to require illegal immigrants to learn
English on the road to earned legal status. But that wasn't the question.
Declaring English the country's official language has absolutely nothing to
do with immigration policy. If your gripe with the status quo is that
America's borders are insecure, or that illegal immigrants cost us a bundle
in government services — or that, darn it, "these people are here illegally
and what part of illegal don't you understand?" — none of those things is
impacted one way or another by whatever language newcomers speak.

So the question that Blitzer fired off wasn't really "related" to the
immigration issue. Instead, it was wrapped up in what is driving much of the
immigration debate — this ugly, xenophobic anxiety that many Americans are
feeling over cultural change and demographic displacement as the Latino
population in this country grows and grows, in part because of immigrants
from Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Let's be clear about that.
Although President Bush took knocks from the nativists for saying it, he was
on the money last week when he implied that much of the resistance to the
bipartisan Senate compromise on immigration was driven by a fear of
diversity. In an interview with McClatchy Newspapers, Bush said that,
growing up in Texas, he learned to "recognize the decency and hard work and
humanity of Hispanics." But not everyone had that experience and so, he
said, "a lot of this immigration debate is driven as a result of Latinos
being in our country."

Bull's-eye. That may sting a little. But the truth will do that. No wonder
we keep getting detoured and convert so easily from talking about
immigration to talking about language. The Senate took that detour last year
when, in the middle of debating immigration, senators suddenly felt the
uncontrollable urge to pass a symbolic resolution declaring English the
national language. Still, I wish that Blitzer hadn't steered the Democratic
debate in that direction — even if two of the candidates were willing to
follow. Former Sen. Mike Gravel won applause when he noted that — while he
spoke both English and French — yes, of course, "the official language of
the United States of America is English." And Sen. Hillary Clinton gave a
dispassionate lawyerly answer defining the difference between declaring
English the national language (which she supports) and the official language
(which she doesn't). Making English an official language, she said, might
result in non-English-speaking people being denied services such as court
translators or bilingual ballots.

Sens. Barack Obama and Chris Dodd saw the question for what it was and
refused to answer. Obama said that "this is the kind of question that is
designed precisely to divide us" and urged his colleagues to instead refocus
their attention on coming up with a legal and sensible immigration policy.
"When the immigration debate gets sidetracked by such questions," Obama
said, "we do a disservice to the American people." Dodd agreed that the
question was divisive and — noting that he spoke Spanish — made a pitch for
more language training. "We have too few of our people in our country that
can understand second languages," he said. Sounding a lot like President
Bush, Dodd insisted that since we live in a global economy, "we need to
encourage more diversity" instead of wasting energy arguing about whether we
should designate one official language in this country.

In their responses, Obama and Dodd showed class, character and — given that
most Americans support declaring the English the official language —
courage. These are not bad qualities to have if you're seeking the nation's
highest office. Frankly, I don't care if presidential candidates speak
Spanish or French or Swahili. But I want them to be fluent in common sense.
*Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San
Diego Union-Tribune.*
*

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