Unified language does not a unified nation make

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An April 14 USA Today opinion article on illegal Mexican immigration by Alabama resident D. Ezell read, “If people want to be in this country so badly, they need to assimilate and become ‘American.’ This means following laws, being good citizens and speaking English.”

Ezell voices concerns growing in every part of the country regarding the problems that immigration brings. And it’s no wonder — Americans have historically been very unhappy with immigration. From the get-go, our founding fathers, not separated by more than three generations from their immigrant ancestors, held prejudices against outsiders.

In the mid-18th century, Benjamin Franklin despised the Germans immigrating to Philadelphia, saying that they “are generally the most stupid of their nation.... Few of their children know English.” In the 1920s, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger wrote, “The new immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, with its lower standard of living and characteristic racial differences, has intensified many existing social problems and created a number of new ones.”

The same thing is happening today.

Many people are concerned that with continued illegal immigration, the American Southwest will become a resistant linguistic and cultural region, much like Quebec is to Canada. They don’t want American culture, community, and identity to be degraded by an influx of people who just don’t care to assimilate.

Assimilation, though, takes time and is never a one-way street. If Ezell thinks that he is going to see the Mexican immigrants he lives around “become American” any time soon, he is mistaken.

Whether we like or not, immigrants have forced upon the U.S. a cultural exchange. Like every group before them, Mexican immigrants are at once holding onto their heritage and being exposed to American culture. There is cultural mixing going on, not just in the Southwest, but in every major city in America.

While some anthropologists and political scientists have tried to draw sharp contrasts between Mexican immigrants and European immigrants, recent research has not been kind to such theories. Studies have shown that successive generations of Mexican-Americans speak English more frequently. Their finding showed that 60 percent of third-generation Mexican-Americans speak English in their homes, which is important because the home is the place they would be least likely to speak English. These findings indicate that the same slow process of “Americanization” is happening for Mexican immigrants as it has for every other immigrant group in American history.

The idea of requiring immigrants to speak English is not a bad one, but should not be promoted for the wrong reasons. Mandating that English be spoken in government and legal discourse has merit.
Streamlining government activities by using an official language can save the government time and money, and would avoid confusion.

Making immigrants speak English because you don’t want to be inconvenienced at the grocery store or because you find it “un-American” is not reasonable.

Citizens of the Southwest especially do not have the privilege of pretending that English is native to that region. The only reason America has a claim to the Southwest is because of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. We beat Mexico in a war we engineered, and then we took all of the land that the Spanish colonists had stolen from the indigenous people 200 years before. So, while a view of illegal Mexican immigrants as pilgrims to their homeland, which some have espoused, is a bit extreme, we must realize that the culture of that area has always been mixed.

I don’t propose that we all learn Spanish to accommodate illegal immigrants, but don’t forget that there are millions of legal native Spanish-speakers throughout the United States. Foreign language classes in middle and high school aren’t novelties; they are the tools to better communication in this country as well as abroad.

Instead of shouting at immigrants to be more American, to fit in already, to stop being so damn different, perhaps there are things we can learn from them. Over time, the Mexican and American cultures will by necessity rub together enough that Mexicans will assimilate. Let’s not underestimate the power of American culture. It has already pervaded Mexico proper and much of the industrialized world. To think that immigrants pose a hostile threat to our identity as Americans is unfounded. They may pose a change to our identity, an alteration, a broadening of who we are, but they will not degrade what it is to be American. In actuality, they will become what it is to be America — a heterogeneous mixture of cultures and ideas.

I have not addressed some rather important economic aspects of immigration because the immigration debate is usually framed around Social Security, welfare, and other legal issues. These very pertinent issues, however, tend to overshadow concerns of identity, culture, and language. We can take a narrow view of assimilation, pretending that we can make all immigrants dress in khakis and shop at Wal-Mart, or we can realize that the cultural borderland between the U.S. and Mexico has been simmering for over a hundred years and is starting to boil over. But we don’t need to fear and we don’t need to jump to conclusions.