Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you know that this week a bipartisan group of senators and President Obama finally unveiled their proposals for immigration reform. Part of the senators’ plan includes making English a requirement for permanent residency; currently, English is only a requirement for citizenship. Over on our Facebook page, this proposed change sparked a spirited debate. To take a closer look at the issue, two Gozamos writers hash it out.
By J.N. Reyna
Of all the provisions in comprehensive immigration reform legislation currently being debated, the requirement for would-be residents to speak English is the least worrisome. Demonstration of proficiency in English is already a requirement for citizenship in the United States so this provision isn’t anything new. Requiring that residents and citizens speak the language of the country they are immigrating to is a common requirement in many nations across the globe. For example, one requirement for obtaining Mexican citizenship (including dual-citizenship) is demonstration of Spanish language proficiency and basic knowledge of Mexican history.
The legal requirement demanding residents speak English does not bother me, but backwards ideas demanding immigrants not speak their native languages do bother me. But, let’s be clear: these are two separate issues. So while many racist xenophobes cringe at the sound of Spanish, paranoid and feeling outnumbered–despite the reality of their socio-economic dominance–they are less concerned about immigrants speaking English then they are with the idea of immigrants speaking anything their Anglo ears cannot understand. Placating fear is not a reason to force people to learn English, nor should it ever be. Fortunately, there are many other beneficial reasons to require citizens learn English. The best reason is that possessing even a minimum proficiency of English in an English-speaking country is better than not possessing that knowledge.
There is no argument one could make that would make me doubt the merits of speaking English in a predominantly English-speaking nation. I will admit, I am biased. The importance of having a strong command of the English language was something instilled in me at an early age by my family and elders in my community. My mother, now retired after nearly three decades of teaching, worked as a bilingual educator for elementary CPS students during the day and taught English as a Second Language classes for adults at night. I spent many evenings at the dinner table listening to her recap her experiences in the classroom and praise the hard working adult students she taught. In her ESL classes, there were men learning English in the hopes of turning their labor into self-owned businesses. There were women whose husbands vehemently did not want them to learn English, so as to keep them at home in their Spanish-speaking kitchens. Others were there for less ambitious reasons like not wanting to get lost on trains and buses. One woman was embarrassed about paying bills that came to her address that she couldn’t read–and that sometimes weren’t even hers. Some of the truly driven individuals couldn’t read or write in Spanish, let alone English, but they were determined to learn new things in their new country nonetheless. They didn’t struggle to learn a new language as some servile act of obeisance to the superiority of the English language. Rather, they learned English to better their everyday lives. For immigrants planning to make the United States their permanent home, the English language requirement isn’t a bureaucratic obstruction toward gaining citizenship–it’s a standard protection for their own good.
Learning English does not mean you will unlearn Spanish. There is no law requiring citizens speak English 24 hours a day, seven days a week in every space they occupy. The culture passed down in our homes from older generations to the next does not silence itself at the first ringing of English words out of our mouths. We should not confuse learning a new language with abandoning our culture. Many racist immigrant-haters in this country hear residents and citizens of Hispanic descent speaking Spanish and shudder anxiously at the sounds. They complain that this country is losing its cultural (read: White) identity. How different are those misinformed folks from Spanish speakers who refuse to learn English out of a concern of losing their ethnic identity? I would say English-only American xenophobes and Latinos refusing to speak English are actually speaking the same language: one of irrational fear and hate. It is a message that sounds equally ugly whether it’s rolling off Latin tongues or Anglo tongues–and a message we should be careful not to repeat.
This kind of requirement is an insult and a setback for all who have fought for linguistic acceptance, and puts undue burden on some immigrants who are already the most vulnerable in the system. It is impractical to implement or even define, and it should be altogether taken off the lengthy agenda of immigration reform.
The requirement of “learning English” is at this point incredibly vague, perhaps intentionally. There are a million questions one could ask about how it would even work and what kinds of factors will be contingent upon “learning English,” such as:
• How long will immigrants have to learn English before they are considered in violation of the law?
• Must an immigrant in the agricultural field be as proficient as a professional worker?
• Doesn’t a language requisite for permanent residency directly affect those on the path to citizenship, especially people who currently qualify for an English language exemption?
• Is this, at its core, an educational requirement that might disproportionately hinder the current and potential immigrants who have less time or means? Is this a machiavellian way to deny residency?
English language requirements should summon a bad taste in the mouths of those familiar with some of the more xenophobic branches of the Official English (aka English Only) movements that have unsuccessfully attempted to establish English as the official language of the U.S. Although language is not a protected class (as are race, ethnicity and nationality), language can be a strong indicator of national origin and culture; it is certainly possible to discriminate on the basis of language, and this stipulation puts us on a slippery slope towards linguistic discrimination.
English language stipulations tend to crop up whenever there is a perceived immigration influx or crisis (especially starting in the 19th century), which are uncoincidentally times when racist and anti-immigrant sentiment is high. A language requirement weeds out immigrants who don’t fit an ideal of a “good” monolingual, U.S. English-speaking American. It would affect immigrants from Latin American and Asian countries in much high numbers and lend privilege to those already privileged with being from an English-speaking country or having the time and money to be educated in a language well enough to pass a test.
This requirement is an obvious step back to the naïve “one nation, one language, one people” ideal. Spanish, for one, is by no means a “foreign” language within the U.S., and only someone ignorant of history can deny that its presence dating back half a millennium. To push “foreign” languages into homes is to deny them a place in U.S. political society and to deny that English, like any language, constantly evolves, often with the influence of various dialects and tongues. (Spanglish, anyone?)
Many nations all over the world embrace their multilinguism — though many linguistic minorities had to fight to be heard. For example, French- and Catalan-speaking people in Canada and Spain, respectively, petitioned and struggled for their linguistic heritages to be included in the larger picture of the nation. Perhaps some have forgotten that many people in the U.S., from Native Americans to Chicanos, have too struggled against repressive cultural and political forces so they could speak their own languages openly.
The government should adhere to the populations it governs, not shape the country based on old school ideals. Do we want to recall the eras of literally forbidding certain groups (looking at you, Chinese Exclusion Act) by basing who we let ‘into our borders’ on cultural factors and racial hatred within our borders? The immigrants who are legally ‘allowed’ to reside in the U.S. should not have been chosen because they were already more assimilated and convenient to talk to.
Non-English speaking immigrants already know the practical implications of learning English – it is the de facto language in the vast majority of places and situations in the U.S. Adding a legal language requirement as some sort of indicator of worthiness of living permanently in the U.S. serves little purpose. There are many, many things that should be of greater concern to lawmakers trying to fix the immigration system.
At best, an English language requirement creates yet another unnecessary obstacle for immigrants of all levels of documentation, especially the most vulnerable. At worst, it opens the door to discrimination and overzealous enforcement based on loose interpretations of law (looking at you now, SB-1070 and the like).
Instead of protecting the individual rights of those living within the U.S. borders and inviting people who could provide great things for the country, we would be slapping the U.S. of A with a big, ugly “ENGLISH ONLY” sign. Is that really what we want?