The Bilingual Burden of Republican Guilt

Just a few years ago, congressional Republicans overwhelmingly supported proposals to expel a million or more Hispanic children from American public schools.

Now, perhaps in a misguided attempt to expiate that political sin, the Republican-controlled Senate has voted by an overwhelming two-to-one margin to quadruple the federal budget for Spanish-only bilingual education programs, largely aimed at those same children. The Republicans, apparently, are now willing to allow immigrant youngsters to remain in school, but are determined to prevent them from learning English, even if that policy requires importing thousands of teachers from Mexico and Spain.

Such desperate Republican actions are hardly surprising. For some of the mid-1990s, the Republican Party came close to making hostility to immigrants and immigration a core element of its political portfolio. Disoriented in the post-Reagan era, and reeling from the disastrous 1992 defeat of President Bush, many Republicans saw the immigration-fueled, come-from-behind landslide re-election victory of Gov. Pete Wilson of California as a signpost to national success. Raising the terrible threat of immigration — dramatized by gripping television spots showing hordes of dark-skinned foreigners attempting to invade America — seemed a powerful political weapon.

Compelling Mix

Under President Reagan and earlier, the Republicans had been as pro-immigrant as the Democrats — and perhaps even more so. In 1984, Mr. Reagan’s compelling mix of strength and optimism had won him close to half the Hispanic and Asian vote, despite the overwhelmingly Democratic registration of both those groups. Many of the libertarian gurus of the congressional Republicans who gained power in 1994 glorified free immigration almost as much as they did free markets.

None of that mattered. Hard economic times and the attendant social strains had produced an apparent public backlash against immigrants, as indicated by opinion polls. Political consultants quickly flagged immigration as a powerful wedge issue, tremendously appealing to nervous blue-collar workers, anti-immigrant blacks, and perhaps even a broader white electorate grown uneasy over the pace of demographic change. Not only had Mr. Wilson won in California, but immigrants appeared the ideal political scapegoat: Many were undocumented, most of the rest were not citizens, and factors of youth, poverty and apathy led to very low voting rates among the remainder. Locating a socially marginal group that may be demonized without risk of retaliation at the polls is a political consultant’s dream.

And so from late 1994 through most of 1996, a raft of remarkably harsh proposals were enshrined in the Republican Party platform or received the endorsement of the vast majority of congressional Republicans, led by Immigration Subcommittee chairs Sen. Alan Simpson and Rep. Lamar Smith.

Immigrants — even naturalized U.S. citizens — were to be denied public benefits available to all other Americans. Immigrants guilty of quite minor criminal offenses decades earlier were to be deported to homelands they sometimes barely remembered. Legal immigration to America was to be drastically cut, or perhaps eliminated entirely. American-born immigrant children were to be denied their 14th Amendment rights of citizenship because of the status of their parents. And most shockingly, huge majorities of the congressional Republicans voted to follow the path of California’s Proposition 187 and expel from American public schools a million or more young immigrant children, simply because of who their parents were.

Most of these measures ultimately failed to pass, though, as intended, they left a deep mark on public sentiment. But whereas their primary political architects had hoped they would galvanize the anti-immigrant vote in the 1996 elections, they instead served to energize and motivate millions of Hispanics and Asians, contributing greatly to Republican defeats that year.

In Florida, for example, Cubans who normally went 70% or 80% Republican (and who recently gave George W. Bush an unprecedented 90% of their vote) split their support almost evenly between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, costing the latter that hitherto solid Republican state. Similarly, a huge anti-Republican tide among Arizona’s Hispanics helped put Barry Goldwater’s rock-ribbed home state in the Democratic column. And the 1996 elections became merely the first of an endless series of political disasters for California Republicans.

Republicans had to swallow long-term demographic trends, which forecast increasing numbers of immigrant votes. If immigrants and their children became a Democratic voting block as solid as blacks or Jews, the Republicans would permanently lose the largest states — California, Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois — leaving places like Idaho and Wyoming as their national base. Suddenly, pro-Hispanic and pro-immigrant figures such Govs. George W. Bush of Texas and Jeb Bush in Florida became the likely saviors of the national party. Meanwhile, party operatives airbrushed Pete Wilson out of all their candidates’ photos.

Here, the fable of the cat that sat on a red-hot stove becomes relevant. Just as that chastened creature never sat on another hot stove — nor on a cold one either — the badly burned Republicans became increasingly skittish on any public matter with an ethnic tinge, regardless of its particulars or its popularity. The same candidates who had fearlessly suggested expelling a million Hispanic children from school now cowered at any criticism from tiny groups of leftist Hispanic activists, who represented few beyond themselves.

In 1996, Newt Gingrich had bombastically called for establishing English as America’s official national language — whatever that means. Yet only a year later, one of his top congressional priorities had become gaining statehood for Puerto Rico, in a bizarre attempt to win Mexican-American votes. Most recently, many of America’s top Republican leaders are supporting a new general amnesty for illegal immigrants, the very people they had demonized a few years earlier.

The current Republican position on whether public schools should teach English to immigrant children is another attempt at penance — a misguided one, in this instance. Overwhelming majorities of Hispanic immigrants want their children taught English as quickly as possible, and their feelings are shared by nearly everyone else in America (including, privately, most teachers’ union leaders and Hispanic politicians). Yet this policy has always been opposed for a mixture of historical and symbolic reasons by small but very vocal groups of Hispanic activists.

In 1998, fear of such groups led the bulk of California’s Republican Party leaders to actively oppose Proposition 227, aimed at replacing bilingual education with intensive English immersion. Nonetheless, and despite being outspent some 25-to-1 in advertising, the measure passed in a landslide, was rapidly upheld in the federal courts, and implemented statewide at the beginning of the 1998 school year. Within months, newspapers carried accounts of the remarkable popularity and success of the new English immersion program, among teachers and students alike, with scarcely a dissenting word to be found anywhere.

Then last year, the New York Times documented the dramatic 40% rise in mean percentile scores of over a million immigrant students after less than two years of the new curriculum, with the Mexican-American founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators proclaiming himself a born-again convert to English immersion. Numerous liberal editorial writers and columnists affirmed their support for a nationwide elimination of these disastrous bilingual programs. Last November, the voters of Arizona took their advice, passing a similar measure by an even wider margin than in California.

Faded Rhetoric

Given this remarkable national momentum, the surprising response of the Republican Party — which has nominally opposed bilingual programs for three decades — has been to declare defeat and go home, endorsing the faded rhetoric of the bilingual education industry, and now proposing to quadruple the federal budget for these failed programs. But while the combined House and Senate versions of the current proposed legislation would increase financial support by over 200% even for those programs that kept immigrant children in Spanish-only classes for a decade or more, others have reacted differently.

Small groups of parents, teachers, and community activists — usually Hispanics or liberal Democrats — are organizing to dismantle these harmful programs in Colorado, New York City, and New Jersey. Recently, a Democratic state senator in liberal Massachusetts introduced legislation to do the same. Unlike all too many Republicans, these individuals have clear consciences on immigration matters and actual personal contact with immigrant parents.

It would be a great tragedy if Republican guilt over their immigration sins of yesterday leaves them trailing liberal Massachusetts and New York City in choosing to do the right thing today.

Mr. Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, led the successful 1998 campaign for Proposition 227, which dismantled California’s bilingual-education system.

Comments are closed.