Politics & Media
Oct 28, 2008, 05:43AM

America is a Melting Pot, Not a Dumping Ground

Legally requiring immigrants to learn English isn’t unfair; it promotes upward mobility and assimilation.

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Photo by Boss Tweed.

The first issue in the Missouri ballot for Nov. 4 asks this: “Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to add a statement that English shall be the language of all governmental meetings at which any public business is discussed, decided, or public policy is formulated whether conducted in person or by communication equipment including conference calls, video conferences, or Internet chat or message board?”

The proponents of the measure say a common language in the state has a vital part in integrating it to the American culture. Opponents say it is an unnecessary issue that picks on immigrants for a problem that doesn't exist and it is just a ploy to increase the Republican turnout at the polls. Nonetheless, the main issue here is not just about using English in state business. It is about the aspect of assimilation among immigrants.

This is one of the most contentious issues when it comes to immigration. Yet, just the fact that we have a dispute about it is a disgrace for the state of political discourse in the country. Let me be clear, I do consider America as a nation of immigrants and I too came to the United States from India as one a few years ago. However, the knee-jerk reaction against assimilation is a counter-productive argument, whether it is for the country or for the immigrants themselves.

While arguing against assimilation, the liberals conveniently forget the fact that America has always been a nation of immigrants. They mistake the push for assimilation as a nativist reaction against immigration. This is not the first influx of immigrants to come into the country. There have been waves of immigrants from Germany, Italy, Ireland, Poland and countless other countries. There has never been a demand for them to be able to do daily business in their own native languages, let alone in the dealings with the government. It was understood that once you are in America, you are expected to learn English to be able to be a part of the country. Nobody asked for sign boards in German or license tests in Italian. It must have been tough, but it was a hardship that the immigrants were willing to take on their quest to pursue the American dream.

There are two dangers when you do not require the immigrants to learn English or worse, if you make it easy for them not to learn it. First, failing to learn English denies them the opportunity to pursue their dreams by not being able to work or do business in the mainstream. This vastly diminishes their chances of moving up the financial ladder. Second, it will lead to the rise of a segregation system where the immigrants live a separate life unconnected to the mainstream America. This amounts to the same kind of separatism that the liberals have always fought against. Read in this context, their push for Spanish language schools for the children of immigrants is a dire one. This effectively calls for keeping even the second generation of the immigrants chained to the same barriers that their parents faced, for a foreseeable future.

Take a look at history: Something that most immigrants always had in common was the language hurdle. The first generation immigrants had to always face some level of a challenge crossing the language or the accent barrier. Nonetheless, fast-forward two or three generations and you can see that the children and grandchildren of all these immigrant groups have all become a part of mainstream America. On the other hand these Spanish language programs would in fact create a second string group of citizens who are perpetually stuck in their virtual isolation to the rest of the society.

This does not mean that America should take away the heritage of the immigrants. Immigrants and their children would still keep certain aspects of their culture that, in turn, will part of the American culture. Whether it is the St. Patrick’s Day parades across the country or pizza, these traditions always enrich the American society and this is exactly what makes America the melting pot of the world. However, a melting pot requires that its ingredients be melted indistinguishably into the greater mixture, not stay afloat or sink to the bottom and stay separate like oil and water.

Coming back to the Missouri ballot issue, one can claim that the issue is pointless as the state business or meetings are always held in English and this issue is nothing but an election tactic. However, as a word of caution, states may have to revert to multiple languages when it comes to communication on certain subjects like health and safety where it cannot afford to miss anyone, especially the immigrants who are usually the most at risk.

So, when it comes to immigration policy, the aim should be to promote assimilation rather than creating aeonian dumping grounds for groups of second-class citizens separated by a language barrier. This is not picking on immigrants. This is not racism. This is the way things have been done and it has been proven successful over the centuries. When you come to America, learning English is a small sacrifice that you can make on your journey to achieve your American dream. This is what I did as an immigrant myself a few years ago. It worked just fine for me.

  • Excellent article Issac - you've articulated something that I've felt for a long time. I think many liberals confuse assimilation and integration. Assimilation connotes abandoning prior culture and taking up the lifeways of the "mainstream" culture wholeheartedly. Integration means living and working alongside, literally intermixing. Learning English aids with integration, that is becoming part of a wider American community, but it does not necessarily mean assimilation (giving up previous traditions and languages). In my personal experience I have always found it amazing that supposedly open minded college students seem to think that mandatory (or simply strong) English-language education for Spanish speakers is tantamount to a war crime, yet many of them take Spanish (or French, or Japanese) classes themselves. Are elites the only ones who are virtuous enough to be bilingual?

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  • Great point that there has never been "a demand for them to be able to do daily business in their own native languages, let alone in the dealings with the government". Speaking English opens up opportunities to move into mainstream America and be successful.

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  • just so splice knows, there is an ad where two 21 year old girls apparently want to video chat with me. When I click on the ad, it just takes me to a website. Can you put me in contact with me these ladies. also this is a good article on the same lines: http://www.slate.com/id/2101756

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  • Immigrants should be encouraged to learn English so they can understand the language of commerce and the majority of our population. However, it should never be a legal requirement. That just fosters bigotry and thoughts of building a "wall" on the Texas-Mexico border (a ridiculous suggestion).

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  • I agree that speaking a particular language should never be a requirement for voting or civil rights (although I don't see anything wrong with mandatory English classes in school). I don't really follow how language laws would lead to a border wall.

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  • I have to wonder if this issue isn't an aspect of the current "can't do" attitude of the day. Don't get me wrong -- when systemic injustice leaves certain groups disadvantaged, then the system needs changed. But it seems there is more and more a sense of entitled helplessness at work in the U.S., if not the entire first world. The people I see, hear and interact with seem to feel that they can't do anything, as an individual, to better their situation. Either the system is too stacked against their success, they feel, or they don't have the personal or internal resources to pull themselves out of the hole. There is also that specter of instantaneous gratification that causes them to balk at the suggestion that long-term, consistent and sometimes tedious effort is needed on their part to get them to where they want to go. Perhaps requiring immigrants to learn English would make them prove to themselves that they CAN do. If they can learn the language of their new homeland, they might be lead to reason, then perhaps they can do whatever else is needed to make the most of their new freedoms and opportunities.

  • Ari, I think you're splitting hairs on the meaning of assimilation and integration. Assimilation doesn't mean abandoning the culture that immigrants grew up with in their homeland; it simply means learning and participating in the customs and traditions of a new culture as well. I don't think English should be mandatory, but rather highly encouraged. In previous waves of immigration, Poles, Irish, Germans, Japanese, Koreans, etc., did learn to speak English and also enriched the United States by making their own cultural traditions (often in the form of cuisine) popular.

  • Table, you are right... it has always been that way. It is a new thing for people to ask for not learning English. These are not going to help them in the long run.

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  • Also, to learn a language sufficiently to do the basic interactions in daily life should not be that hard. After all, the language structure and even some words in English and Spanish are similar.. I come from a language which is totally different from English. I now know enough English to survive, and to, let us say publish a somewhat decent article like this one.

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  • this isnt england this proposed law is racist and prejudice maybe or who knows maybe it really is in the interest of more effective government i have at least one question though wont it exclude americans from being part of the government process

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  • How would it exclude Americans?

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