LOS ANGELES – Is the United States on the verge of becoming a bilingual country?

The data seem at first to be inconclusive. California used the citizens’ proposition system last year to vote down the long-disastrous bilingual education – which was really unilingual education in Spanish – and test scores are soaring. Studies show that most new immigrants do eventually learn English, and 25 states have officially declared themselves English-speaking.

Now a new case study has emerged, from the Rio Grande border south of Laredo, that tosses into the river any rosy suppositions that language conflicts will never seriously threaten the United States. El Cenizo, Texas, a town of roughly 6,300 mostly Hispanic-American citizens and perhaps as many as 1,500 Mexican illegal immigrants, has declared itself officially a Spanish-speaking city, thus becoming the first to do so.

That this has happened should surprise no one, since our entire citizenship and immigration processes have been so watered down over the past 20 years that one wonders what possible reasons to prize America any newcomer would glean from them, except that one can make money here. Language unity has been treated as largely unimportant.

In El Cenizo, the Spanish-speaking mayor and city council voted in early August to conduct all official government business in Spanish, raising questions that go far beyond questions of language. In a separate but related ordinance, for instance, they voted clearly, and from all appearances without the slightest compunction, to declare El Cenizo a “safe haven” for illegal immigrants.

The really shocking part? The ordinance further forbids El Cenizo officials and workers to cooperate with the Border Patrol and immigration, thus requiring citizens and residents to disobey laws that are crucial to U.S. security.

Several issues here shed substantial light on the larger problems of language, immigration and citizenship that this small border town prefers not to bother itself about.

First, this act is not the ideology-ridden act of Chicano-wise students who look at language as a tool for acting out fantasies of retaking the Southwest.

Second, the El Cenizo case study is not even about bilingualism, which has been the big fight in schools, where at least the theory, if not the reality, has been that immigrant students should gradually ease into English through first learning mostly in Spanish.

In El Cenizo, they are essentially saying, “Forget English: Just speak Spanish.”

Third, although El Cenizo is unique and although the people there seem, from all reports to date, to have simply acted on their own, they are also responding to political processes along the border.

Today, there are 250,000 inhabitants of these poor colonias along the border, and the Texas bill for services in them is in excess of $ 1 billion a year.

Although the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service says that what El Cenizo has done is indeed illegal, it is simply not a high-priority issue for the INS. Gov. George W. Bush’s office, shockingly, has reacted with bland pronouncements about obeying the laws.

Clearly, nothing will be done.

Until the next El Cenizo, or the next after that.

For in this unhealthy process that America has allowed to fester, virtually nowhere are the immigrants confronted with any real demands to become American or to take part in the larger society – or, for that matter, to show it much respect or dignity.

Instead, America has continuously subsidized the separatism that the colonias embody.

Benign disassimilation: delivered and paid for by American citizens. Why, then, should anybody be surprised at El Cenizo Numero Uno? Georgie Anne Geyer writes on world affairs for Universal Press Syndicate.

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