WASHINGTON, May 8, 2013 —“If You’re Silent Today; Youll Be Speaking Spanish Tomorrow” and “English is Our Language, No Excetions [sic] Learn it.”
These are samples of some of the messages Americans displayed the last time Congress attempted immigration reform. The signs were legion opposing legalization for undocumented immigrants on the basis of the newcomer’s putatively poor grasp of the English language.
Uninterrupted work history, English proficiency, a background check, back taxes are just some of the requirements for undocumented immigrants to achieve the proposed “pathway to legalization.” By these standards, “half of my family would be excluded,” Senator Lindsey Graham recently deadpanned, eliciting guffaws at the bill unveiling. “I am glad we are not applying it to ourselves,” the Senator conceded.
Indeed, what a privilege it is to be the majority.
Our U.S. naturalization test asks immigrants applying for citizenship to name four amendments to the Constitution pertaining to who can vote and describe one of them, name one author of the Federalist Papers and the territory we bought from France in 1803. And yet, over 90% of immigrants who take this test pass it the first time.
Jay Leno’s long-running “Jaywalking” segment showed that those of us born here routinely fail far simpler questions than these. Asked to name the number of stars in the American flag, as Leno pointed to it, one woman exclaimed: “It’s moving too fast to count ‘em!” Asked what countries border the U.S., one man said Hawaii. Of what the “v” stood for in Roe v. Wade, one woman guessed Vietnam.
In 2011, Newsweek found 29percent of Americans couldn’t even name our current vice-president, and if administered the naturalization test, at least a third of Americans wouldn’t be Americans.
Since not due to civic acumen, why do we believe we deserve to be Americans ? The most popular rationalizations are: We’re first. Only we’re not. We speak English. Except, almost none of us do. Perhaps it is largely instinctual. We think hotdogs, football and Supersized “freedom fries” are American. And watching soccer — a socialist country’s sport! —wearing hijabs and speaking Spanish are not American.
Yet the idea that there is any such thing as “culturally American” misses that the signatories of our Declaration of Independence counted among their number, several multilingual Francophiles. It misses that English is itself a bastardized, polyglot language and there is no such thing as a “pure” language anywhere in human history.
And using the Boston bombings as a reason not to pass immigration reform forgets that from Benedict Arnold to Adam Pearlman, plenty who “look” like they belong, should be the legitimate objects of our worry, instead of Spanish language forms at the DMV.
It is only by applying an unfair cultural standard that we can justify holding immigrants to a standard we ourselves do not meet.
Ultimately, America is an idea and the only eligibility test to be American is fidelity to that idea. As a consequence, the philosopher Mike Walzer’s observation is apt: any radical program of Americanization would simply be un-American.
People aren’t un-American, only ideas are.
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