Saturday, May 20, 2006

Much Ado About English

I tend to lean in agreement with the argument that says we don't do anyone a favor by offering multi-language services because they allow some segment of the immigrant population--however large or small that segment may be--to navigate through daily life in America without ever becoming fluent in the English language. But we've had such services for decades now, and if American society is collapsing, it isn't because the signs on some grocery stores in Los Angeles read Super Mercado.

So I'm more than a little dismayed at the pro and con furor going on over the proposed immigration bill amendments that will make English the "official language" of the United States of America. Aside from whipping up emotions, what would such an amendment accomplish?

I don't know what if any federal laws are on the books that require any commercial enterprise or any agency in federal, state, or local government to provide other-than-English services. But by and large, the law that governs multi-language services is the law of supply and demand. If you're a merchant in China Town, you're probably wise to cater to the desires of your Chinese-speaking customers. If you're a politician in a city that has a large Hispanic voter population, you'll be inclined to approve of multi-lingual signs in city facilities. Ever get annoyed at that Espanola menu option when you call your phone company? Well, get used to living with the aggravation, because if your phone company weren't making money on people who use that option, it wouldn't be on the menu.

Legislating English as America's "official" language, or stating in law that no one has an "inherent right" to multi-language services is not likely to change where, when, or how these services are offered. To get rid of those services would require legislation that bans them, and the men and women in our Congress won't go anywhere near a proposed law like that. And would Congress ever dream of making it illegal for immigrants to use their native languages in their own homes and neighborhoods? I'll tell you what, I'll scream bloody murder if the Language Police ever come knocking on my door demanding I turn over my great uncle's German bible!

The proposed "English amendments" have as much real impact as the immigration reform bill itself. Building a great wall along the border that can be tunneled under or climbed over won't slow down illegal immigration or the illegal enterprises that support it. Nor will adding six thousand border guards, whatever agency they happen to work for.

The proposed immigration legislation serves two purposes.

First, it's an appeal to both ends of the split electorate baby. It courts the immigrant vote and the vote of businesses that employ immigrants and contribute to campaign funds. At the same time, it woos the segment of the population that wants to limit immigration for a variety of reasons ranging from labor issues to outright bigotry.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, it's a smoke screen that's masking a bevy of government failures and scandals.

Whatever the immigration reform bill winds up looking like, it will do for immigration reform what the Homeland Security bill did for Homeland Security. But don't worry. It won't cost you anything. Whatever the Social Security surplus doesn't cover we'll throw on our tabs with non-English speaking nations like China and Japan.


  1. La misma sopa, excedente calentado (véase: enmienda bandera-que se quema; enmienda de la unión-protección; Schiavo, Terri; etc).

    Same soup, warmed over (see: flag-burning amendment; marriage-protection amendment; Schiavo, Terri; etc).

  2. Seven of Six12:00 AM

    Jeff, I look at it as splitting the Republicans into 2 distinct factions, moderates and hardliners. Anything to split the GOP is good in my book.
    There is no doubt that this Administration has failed in everything it has done. That's the part that is so scandalous!

    It certainly brings attention to another issue facing America: We always have to hate something or somebody. Now it is hate the illegal immigrant or the immigrant issue.
    Something to deflect attention from what is really messed up with America, the Bush Administration!

  3. Yep. A red herring.

  4. Meribeth7:39 AM

    Illegal immigration in not the issue. Call it a red herring if you want. The issue is UNsecured borders. We have heard that the terrorists are coming to get us, 9/11, 9/ nausea. Yet, our fearless leader has chosen to go fight in Iraq, put the next generation in debt, kill thousands of people...but refuses to take care of things at home. And now people are finally beginning to look at the UNsecured well as other issues..and are saying fix it. Why is the Mexican military vehicles and personel (real members or not) crossing our boarders, and nothing done about it?? (a well placed grenade would stop that foolishness) So instead of calling it piss poor boarder security he/they are calling it illegal immigration. Typical of what the last 7 years has been.

    Yes, certain areas of the country has problems with the services they are supposed to offer (by law) to illegals. And this needs to be addressed locally and federally. We need to inforce the laws that are on the books now, and get rid of the loopholes. (Which is probably impossible)

    From my own experience, the people I have worked with, and have done work which I am familir...who may or may not have been truly illegal, is superior to much of what was done with "home grown." I know I will probably get blasted, but I stand by what I have seen and experienced. Also, the peaceful demonstrations by the Latino communities recently, have impressed me. I don't see that kind of response in our "own" populace. Where are the protests against the war? taxes? torture? corruption?

    Like seven of six said "it is a deflection of attention" away from the fact that Bush has is a total FUBAR and the country is going to pay for it.

  5. Meribeth is right that its not a red herring - at least, unsecure borders and illegal immigration aren't red herrings. The whole "english as the official language" is ridiculous and it is a waste of time that could be spent on important issues. But borders and illegal immigration are certainly legitimate issues, regardless of whether those who think any issues besides how bad the Bush admin is are letigimate or not.

  6. They're legitimate issues that aren't being addressed in a legitimate manner.

    If the real issue is Homeland Security, why is it just now, five years into the so called war on terror, coming to the front burner.

    If illegal immigration is the real issue, why does the main bone of contention seem to be about which illegal immigrants get to stay?

  7. Why is illegal immigration coming to the front burner now? Because the public finally forced it there. You don't think the politicians are going to do that on their own? Particularly not with Bush's ties to Vicente Fox and the GOP's ties generally to businesses that rely on illegals as part of their work force. I'm sure the admin and GOP Congress would have been content to let the immigration issue stay out of sight for a long time. And many of the Democrats seem to favor an open border, where we do little or nothing to keep anyone from coming across illegally. They certainly weren't going to bring up the issue now. The issue is here because the people finally put it here, and the issue gained traction after the protests in favor of illegals.

  8. What people, Scott? The people who have driven Bush's opinion ratings so low that he needed to come up with a distractor issue?

  9. I'm talking about "the public" Jeff. That should be fairly evident from what I wrote. Not some political cabal that you seem to think controls every aspect of thought and discourse in the country.

  10. I too was talking about "the public" and you know it. The public that's telling Bush he's doing a bad job and that--according to some polls, at least--they no longer want the GOP in control of Congress.

    If you're implying that immigration became a hot button item in DC because all of a sudden, last month, "the public" started writing their representatives tons and tons of letters and e-mails about it, I think you know how transparent that is.

    As to the "cabal" that drives public discourse, well, I also think you know good and well that there is one. You and I don't introduce legislation then swarm the talks shows to discuss it.

    And are you actually suggesting that administrations--especially this one--don't use the media to control public discourse?

    Or are you going to assert, as you often do, that that's conspiracy theory thinking? The WHIG and OSI never existed, the administration isn't targeting reporters and whistle blowers, Karl Rove is a figment of everyone's imagination?

    Young Mister Bush doesn't make a habit of appearing on TV before a hand picked audience?

    Top administration figures don't appear on Rush and FOX News and the rest of the admin friendly media whenever it needs to get the "word" out?

    The administration doesn't attack its political opponents through proxies?

    The government, through its own agencies or contractors like Rendon don't stage phony events like the fall of Hussein's statue?

    That the administration and its agencies haven't directly paid journalists to promote their programs?

    That all those fake news spots were real news spots?

    Jeff Gannon was a real reporter?

    The Pentagon told us the truth about Pat Tillman and the POW girl and GITMO and Abu Ghraib and how things have been going in Iraq and Afghanistan?

    Don't come in here and make statements like your last one again. Next time, you're off the island.

    Have a nice day.

  11. As a teacher of college English, I can say that I wish this measure would at least ensure that my students will graduate high school and enter my classroom knowing how to write correct standard English. I wish the majority of my American students knew how to write English as well as the majority of my foreign-born students.

    Alas, the language legislation is a political red herring that takes attention away from, as meribeth said, our piss-poor border security.

    Hell, George Bush can't even speak proper English.

  12. Ariadne,

    I've heard the lament about US born students lagging behind foreign born students in English schools before.

    I haven't seen any reliable data on the ESL issue, but my impression is that the immigrants who tend to not pick up the language tend to be the older ones who live in an environment (neighborhood, city, family environment, etc.) where they can get by without, but that the kids tend to fall into the language quite well.

    Is this your impression?


  13. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  14. Actually, Musmanno, I think you're using Alanis Morisette's just-plain-wrong definition of irony (i.e., things don't go my way = irony). I haven't been around here in a while, but I've known Jeff H. long enough to know that your complaint is bogus.

    Anyway, Jeff, yes. That is exactly my impression. The students I was talking about are typically studying here to return to their countries with degrees, but in terms of immigration, I think you're right on.

    There was a nice vignette on just this topic in the documentary Spellbound that followed a Mexican immigrant's daughter to the national spelling bee. He spoke no English--she made it to the finals.

  15. Ariadne,

    Like so many things, there's been so much urban legending on this subject that it's really hard to tell how much the multi-language services really contribute to immigrants not learning English.

    I've known quite a few immigrants who spent many, many years here and never learned the language well, but they weren't Spanish speakers, so the multi-language stuff didn't apply in their cases.

  16. Seven of Six10:16 AM

    Why is illegal immigration coming to the front burner now? Because the public finally forced it there.

    The public didn't force the immigration issue to the front burner. It was mostly the media (broken record, Lou Dobbs), Dr. James Dobson and the teacher who started the minutemen project, Chris Simcox and his ilk who are afraid of brown people becoming the super-race.
    Google that Simcox character, I really feel sorry for him. He's sick and needs to see a doctor.

  17. Ariadne:

    You're mistaken. You'll notice that only posts that disagree with Jeff are being deleted, and you'll notice over the course of this blog a lot of criticism (valid) against the administration for having an echo chamber. This is precisely the definition of irony.

    Seven of six:

    I think those guys certainly got some traction, but in the end media attention and actions by people like Simcox don't amount to much unless they start an undercurrent rumbling among the general population. I think that's what happened. I've certainly heard it.

    I don't think the Bush administration necessarily wanted to touch immigration with a 10-foot pole. There's not much of an upside for them. If they go with the hardline right on it, they alienate businesses who want access to cheap labor and make contributions to the party, and they also potentially alienate the growing hispanic population, whom Bush has wanted to woo. Bush also ends up butting heads with his friend Vincente Fox. On the other hand, if they go with a more open guest worker and path to citizenship approach, they alienate a good deal of their hardcore base, which ends up pissed off at the administration stance on the issue. It's a no win for them, and a bad political move to want to talk about it. As for it being a distraction from Iraq, it is an ineffective one. Nothing is going to distract from Iraq, and nothing short of actual improvement in Iraq is going to eliminate Bush's bad numbers.

    I think over the past year the grumblings on immigration among the population have grown, particularly among the GOP core voters, and the administration felt like it HAD to address the issue.