Of course, bigotry and racism are part of it. So are the basic instincts to defend turf and to be wary of the stranger. It’s economic and social competition, a defense of roots and a validation of self.
But most of all, people in the three states that have English-as-an- officia l-language amendments to their state constitutions on the Nov. 8 ballot will be voting on differing visions of this country’s future:
Should the United States officially be one nation indivisible by language? Or should we continue to drift into bilingualism or trilingualism or a permanent profusion of foreign tongues, driven by increasing legal and illegal immigration and concern for human and civil rights?
How voters in Florida, Arizona and Colorado decide on the proposed amendments should either fan or dampen pressures to make English the official language of the United States as a whole. The Florida and Colorado proposals merely declare English to be the state language, leaving implementation to the legislature. The Arizona amendment specifically says English must be used by all state and municipal officials for government business.
Emergency phone lines, police and firefighters would not be affected, both sides agree. Neither would bilingual education in public schools, or other activities required by the federal government.
Pressures to establish English by law as the language of government-and, by implication, of national life-have been spurred primarily by the enormous influx of Hispanics, particularly Mexicans, into the South, the West and large cities elsewhere.
Supporters of the proposals argue that the great flow of Hispanics into the United States in recent years is different from other immigrant waves. Hispanics are greater in number. They are closer to their homeland and keep more ties with it. Many are less committed to becoming fully Americanized and more determined to preserve their own culture and language. In Miami, Hispanics have become so dominant that many can get by without trying to learn English, while a growing number of Americans feel business and social pressures to learn Spanish.
Making English the official language would help push immigrants into the American mainstream, reduce their ethnic isolation and lead to better education and job opportunities, proponents of the proposals say. It would save the government having to use two languages for its documents, and would assure that Hispanics are treated like earlier immigrants who didn’t get special language favors.
But the English-only movement is un-American, opponents say. It is racism only thinly disguised, nativist, mean-spirited, a deliberate putdown of Hispanics because this country never enacted English-only laws when other immigrant groups were gaining power. Hispanics are entitled to maintain their own culture and language, to preserve their own roots and cultural identity, to be free of ethnic discrimination and to have easy access to the government in a language they speak, critics argue.
Furthermore, they say, English-only laws are unnecessary because in two generations Hispanics will learn English anyway, just as other non-Enlgish- speaking newcomers have done, and will eventually be assimilated into the American mainstream.
But if it were possible to separate out the bigotry and fears that prompt some support of these proposed amendments, there is still a benign purpose they are intended to serve. A country must have stronger ties than just shared boundaries to bind it together. It needs a common language, especially when its people do not have a common racial or ethnic heritage. Being able to communicate easily with each other is essential to understanding each other and integrating with each other.
The United States is not just another Canada, wasting time, energy, passion and money almost tearing itself apart in futile disputes over two languages and never quite mending its rifts completely. The United States has dozens of minorities whose native language is not English or Spanish and whose claim to equal-language treatment has the same basis. Without English as a unifying bond, how many other languages would government be pressured to use besides Spanish?
Surely it is in the long-range interest of minorities to join the American mainstream on an equal footing. Refusing to learn English at all makes that impossible and keeps the way open for isolation and discrimination. The amendments send the message that Miami is not just another Havana and Denver is not going to turn into an outpost of Mexico City, and that people who choose to live in this country for economic or political reasons are expected to become a real part of it, not to let themselves be shut out by barriers of language.