It’s not just the symbolism of walls that’s a problem

In their latest incursion into meaningless legislation, our senators passed a measure Thursday, 63-34, that recognizes English as the national language, and another, 58-39, that recognizes it as the “common and unifying language” of the USA.
They also approved a measure that would require immigrants wishing to take advantage of new immigration legislation to “know English.”

All three were amendments to the Senate’s immigration reform bill, and will really have no effect on the way business and politics are conducted in the nation. The Senate bill still needs to reconciled with a House version, so the “English is spoken here” amendments may not survive the process.

The national language amendments are more posturing by our legislators, who are trying to convince us that they are actually doing something of meaning in Washington.

English is already the most widely spoken language in the USA, for obvious reasons. We once were a British colony. Despite significant French and Spanish colonization early in our history, English remaIns the dominant language. All immigrants, if they expected to survive, had to learn English. For my grandparents’ generation, it was a matter of pride to learn English. Their children were lucky to hear the old country’s tongue at home.

The growing Spanish-speaking population in the USA has led to some states being unofficially bilingual. There are laws on the books requiring Spanish translations of government documents. But English is still there. Despite what some jingoists claim, it is unlikely the USA will ever become an officially bilingual country, no matter how many Mexicans scale the new border walls to work here.

As we approach the midterm elections, our politicians are trying to capitalize on a vague  public sensibility that somehow immigrants are threatening our “way of life.” The 9/11 attacks have made many American mistrust Muslims. Rightwing nutcases are trying to convince us that the US is a “Christian nation.” Meanwhile, the large numbers of Spanish-speaking workers, some of whom are undocumented, have also put some “all-American” types ill at ease. After all, you can never be sure what “those people” are saying about you.

We have been through such isolationist times before, most notably in the early 1900s, when immigrants were required to take IQ tests — in English — before gaining admittance to the USA. Immigration authorities also applied early versions of profiling, rejecting dark skinned emigrants from the Slavic and Mediterranean regions in favor of lighter skinned northern Europeans.

It’s appalling that in the 21st century, Congress feels compelled to take advantage of, and even exacerbate, the allegations that the USA is “Christian, English-speaking and for whites only.” It isn’t, and it hasn’t been for at least a hundred years, if at all. People have come to US to be welcomed into the fold, as it were. The message nowadays is less than welcoming. It’s time for Congress to lead us into the new century, not haul us back to 1906.

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