Tulsa, Okla. – “How do you feel about educating the children of illegal immigrants?” I was asked after making a speech at Tulsa Junior College recently. I thought the question was really about how I felt about paying for immigrant kids in public schools.
“Fine,” I said. “As long as it’s in English.”
There was loud applause, which led me to believe the question was not about money and was not anti-immigrant. It was pro-American, which is what I consider myself.
I think bilingualism is about as bad an idea as any that has surfaced in the United States during the past 30 years – a ridiculous scheme that will turn second-generation Americans into second-class citizens.
I assume that if people take the trouble and the trauma to get to America, it’s because they want to be Americans – or they want their children to be Americans.
This is not an educational issue. It is a political issue. The United States is what it is today because we all became Americans.
It was not all pretty. Native-Americans were almost destroyed because they were in the way, African-Americans came in chains, Southerners were killed for trying to get out, German-Americans were jailed for speaking their native language in World War I, and Japanese- Americans were put in concentration camps in World War II. But we’re all still here.
I live in the most bilingual of U.S. cities, Los Angeles. The question in Tulsa was a few years behind L.A. dialogue on immigration and bilingualism. The president of the Los Angeles Board of Education, a woman named Leticia Quezada who came here from Mexico at the age of 13, speaking no English, believes that noncitizens, legal or illegal, should have the right to vote in board elections, because the schools are filled mostly by their children.
“Immigrants” in Los Angeles is a euphemism for Hispanic-Americans from Mexico and Central America. The top 10 foreign languages in LEP (Limited English
Proficiency) programs statewide are Spanish, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Hmong, Cambodian, Filipino, Korean, Lao, Armenian and Mandarin – but more than three out of four LEP students are Hispanic.
There is a great irony there, because the one people the European- Americans drove out of the country by force were the Mexicans, who once legally held sovereignty over California, Texas and parts of the Southwest.
Well, they’re back. Although students entering Los Angeles elementary schools speak more than 50 different foreign languages at home, two-thirds of all students have Spanish as a first language. More than half of Los Angeles County public school students are in bilingual programs.
LEP programs, usually, involve a day divided between teaching of all subjects in the foreign language and a long session of intensive English instruction.
The cost of bilingual education is in the billions and climbing. Most of it is spent on teachers and most of it is wasted. But, aain, that is not the point. No matter what the intentions, being dazzling in a foreign language but halting in English is a formula for washing dishes and digging ditches.
These kids want to be Americans, not strangers in a strange land called America.
Richard Reeves is an author and TV commentator