E Pluribus Unum
The democratic case for bilingualism.
The United States is in the midst of a demographic reordering, brought on by levels of immigration unprecedented in American history. The numbers are staggering: Between 1971 and 2000, nearly 20 million immigrants came to the United States legally–almost two million more people than entered between 1891 and 1920, the last major period of migration-fueled transformation. Of course, as a percentage of total U.S. population, immigrants today represent a smaller cohort than at the turn of the twentieth century, but the acceleration of migration in recent years has been dramatic nevertheless. Between 2000 and 2005, approximately 7.9 million immigrants arrived here–the largest number in any single five-year period in American history. By 2002, more than 20 percent of the population of the United States consisted of immigrants or their children. Add to these totals the nearly 12 million unauthorized immigrants estimated to be present, and it’s no wonder that the immigration debate has roiled the country.
As the number of immigrants entering the United States has reached historic highs, a variety of familiar anti-immigration arguments have surfaced in the public debate: National security is at risk, public safety is being undermined, and American workers are losing their jobs. But the trope most often invoked–across historical periods and the political spectrum–is of immigration as a cultural threat. In this view, demographic trends threaten to dilute the common national culture that sustains the unity essential to our self-government. A nation in which salsa replaces ketchup as the nation’s favorite condiment, and in which public parks are filled with pick-up soccer games as opposed to basketball or baseball, is a nation changed. More than that, some fear, it is a fractured nation in which democracy becomes increasingly difficult to sustain.
Throughout American history, the cultural bogeyman has taken various forms. It has been defined by race, as with the Chinese, who were subjected to draconian exclusion laws in the late nineteenth century and declared inherently inassimilable by Justice John Marshall Harlan, just as he was condemning racial segregation in his famous Plessy v. Ferguson dissent. It has been given religious form, with warning bells sounded about criminal Italian Catholics and venal Eastern European Jews–the two groups that dominated the last period of large-scale immigration. And the arrival of new ethnic groups has been linked by opponents to grave political and national security threats, leading to the swift disappearance, in the wake of World War I and Theodore Roosevelt’s Americanization campaigns, of formerly robust German-language schools, newspapers, and clubs, and the deportation of many Eastern European “radicals” to Russia during the same period, for fear of their Bolshevism.
Today, these prejudices seem almost quaint. Chinese-, Italian-, German- and Jewish-Americans have achieved success at all levels of American society. Racial and religious pluralism, in particular, are widely accepted as fixed (though often anxiety-producing) features of American society; relatively few claim our survival as a nation depends on racial or religious uniformity. But the impulse toward homogeneity and the suspicion of foreigners have not disappeared, they have just taken another form. At least as they are expressed in polite company, these tendencies are most often articulated in linguistic terms. Public figures, opinion writers, and lawmakers at all levels venerate the English language as the glue that provides cohesion in an otherwise impossibly diverse immigrant society–what makes e pluribus unum possible.
Consider the English-only ordinances that have been passed by a number of states and municipalities in the last year. They declare English to be our common language and emphasize that universal use of English “removes barriers of misunderstanding” and “helps to enable the full economic and civic participation” of all citizens, justifying government efforts “promoting, preserving, and strengthening” the English language. During last year’s Senate debate over whether to adopt a national language, James Inhofe of Oklahoma worried that by taking in “great numbers of immigrants,” we are “overwhelming the assimilation process and creating ” linguistic ghettoes.” Lamar Alexander of Tennessee declared that nothing could be more important when debating immigration reform than “talking about our common language,” which enables us to “take our magnificent diversity and make it even more magnificent.” And despite his skepticism of the Republican-sponsored bill, Ken Salazar of Colorado, one of only two Latinos serving in the upper chamber, offered his own amendment, supported by large numbers of Democrats, declaring that “English is the common and unifying language of the United States that helps provide unity for the people of the United States.”
Though the bulk of today’s immigrants come from multilingual corners of Latin America, Asia, and the Caribbean, the language that motivates policymakers’ concerns is Spanish–a language simultaneously associated with immigration-fueled transformation and an old history of manifest destiny, imperial adventure, and civil rights struggles. Indeed, as commentators have observed, the Spanish language is to the United States today what the Islamic veil is to Western Europe–the potent symbol around which the assimilation debate turns. In both societies, the symbol is described as an impediment to mutual understanding, and in both societies, the symbol’s prevalence, whether real or perceived, challenges the cultural security of the general population.
This perception of a new cultural threat in the United States is compounded by the fact that immigrants are increasingly settling not just in border states or big cities but throughout the South and Midwest. In towns across the country, residents are interacting with Latin American immigrants for the very first time. Communities unaccustomed to incorporating immigrants now hear foreign languages in public spaces, see Spanish signs on storefronts, and grapple with the challenge of a sizable non-English-speaking student body in the public schools.
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