Editor’s note: This article first appeared on July 31, 2006. Watts was an assistant professor of religion teaching ethics at Belmont University at the time of publication. It is republished today in light of ongoing debates in the U.S. about immigration reform, which recently led to the longest government shutdown in the nation’s history. Reform legislation proposing knowing English as a requirement for “earned citizenship” parallels, in some ways, those currently demanding money for a physical border wall in exchange for providing Dreamers a path to citizenship.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, proposed along with Rep. Mike Pence, R-Indiana, a new immigration initiative meant to strike a compromise between the “amnesty” and “no amnesty” camps in Congress concerning illegal immigration.
The proposal would, according to the Houston Chronicle, encourage “earned citizenship” by offering a guest worker program requiring a temporary return of illegal immigrants to their home countries. These foreign nationals would then reapply for re-immigration through the “SAFE” program.
Immigrants who participate in the program would be eligible to apply for citizenship after at least 17 years in the U.S. – 12 years with a SAFE visa and five with a transitional visa only after they’ve met certain criteria, one of which is learning English.
Hutchison’s proposal is meant to satisfy conservative demands for the deportation of immigrants illegally living in the United States.
It seeks also to answer the legitimate concerns that it is practically impossible for deportees to re-enter the United States in a timely way.
Despite Hutchison’s recognition of the human element in deportation and re-entry – both for the families and assets of illegals left behind in the U.S., as well as for the skilled labor and budget certainties lost by U.S. businesses – her loyalty to the English mandate is morally troubling.
It is a contemporary form of jingoism, which provides the opportunity for discriminatory acts toward a group of people along linguistic and racial lines.
Here, the issue is not so much the practical necessity of understanding English well enough to perform one’s duties to the social contract – i.e., following laws.
In fact, laws are easily translated into other languages without diminishing the substance of the law or one’s ability to obey it.
No, the danger is one that connects English with the essence of the law and with entitlements to civic goods.
While philosophers, sociologists, cultural anthropologists and linguists often remind us of the intimate connection between language and culture, to say that American culture is available only to those who speak English is wrong.
History teaches us, for example, that the Judeo-Christian ethic lauded as the dominant moral discourse in the United States is one inherited and adopted from Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French and German-speaking cultures.
Furthermore, many who believe that speaking English is the key to “being an American” echo nationalistic and highly sectarian sentiments like those of Theresa Harmon, a founder of Tennesseans for Responsible Immigration Policies.
In an editorial published in The Tennessean on May 28, 2006, she said, “illegal Hispanic immigrants don’t share the American values of education, home ownership and respect for the law and are destroying middle class neighborhoods … .”
“For the most part they want to impose their culture on America rather than learn English or assimilate into American society,” she said. “What you are seeing happen is the destruction of our way of life. Anytime you see a nation go over to an entirely different culture and different nationality, you’re going to see a fight.”
English is, for Harmon, a significant battleground in a war between cultures. But her convictions are neither new nor out of place in U.S. history.
Unfortunately, Americans’ propensities to define cultural purity began with the Founding Fathers and continued through the 19th and 20th centuries in a white, Protestant ethos.
In his famous Federalist Papers letter titled “Federalist No. 2” and written under the pseudonym “Publius,” John Jay tried to persuade New York to ratify a stronger, centralized federal constitutional government.
Jay argued that God has given “this one connected country to one united people … speaking the same language … very similar in their manners and customs …. This country and this people seemed to have been made for each other.” Jay suggested divine sanction for being of one language.
In the century that followed God’s alleged land transfer from Cherokee, Sioux, French and Spanish-speaking peoples to English-speaking peoples, other cultures were denigrated in northern and southern communities alike.
Irish English, Italian, Yiddish, Creole, Appalachian English and Chinese-speaking peoples were considered imperfect specimens of the American birthright.
The Eugenics movement of the 1930s tried to perfect them, while Jim Crow kept them separate and incomplete.
Americans are under the impression that English is both a founding principle of the United States, and a marker for upright, good and responsible citizenship.
This is a vastly different understanding of English as the “official” or national language than that found in Britain.
Today, the rest of the world eats McDonald’s cheeseburgers, plays with GI Joe and Barbie dolls, imitates American pop stars, sends professional athletes to the NBA and MLB, provides cheap labor for American companies and surfs Yahoo in their own languages.
For them, English is not American culture, and neither American culture nor democratic values are exhausted by English.
English is, instead, a “lingua franca” – a communicative tool that connects diversity rather than excludes it.
We must be very careful not to attach civil goods like rights and entitlements to language as many Americans are tempted to do now, especially in a society whose many cultures do not stem from mythical stories like John Jay’s.
Furthermore, American Christians should be wary of this kind of jingoism. We should remember that such a concentration of cultural power is warned against in the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel.
In that story, Nimrod had established an empire whose people worshipped their monolithic culture.
God, however, was displeased at the sinful power encompassed in one language and culture to the extent that God confused their language.
There is one sense in which learning English will help immigrants better understand American culture, though.
They will be able to listen to and revel in country songs like George Strait’s “Seashores of Old Mexico,” written by Merle Haggard.
The song is a new favorite of country fans all over the world, including conservative southerners who would deny lawbreaking immigrants access to their own beaches.
My guess is, based on the popularity of Strait’s song, immigration is the new catchword for American ethnocentrism. He sings:
“I left, out of Tucson, with no destination in mind.
I was runnin’ from trouble and the jail term the Judge had in mind.
And the border meant freedom, a new life, romance,
And that’s why I thought I should go,
And start my life over on the seashores of old Mexico.”
Andy Watts is professor of religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.