, September 17, 2015

Should people living in America speak English? Should they be derided, viewed with suspicion, or even asked to leave, if they primarily speak a different language? Judging by the CNN debate on Wednesday night, Republican and conservative leaders think the answer to both these questions is yes.

It’s hard to argue against that answer to the first question: It’s clearly better for immigrants to speak the language of their adopted country. They will be more competitive for jobs and feel more connected to society. But the shortsightedness implied by the second question is troubling: a population that speaks several languages is helpful, not harmful, to America’s economy and national security.

The conversation among conservatives about undocumented immigrants and what they perceive as a threat to American identity has indeed been ongoing. These days, it’s tied to a virulent, anti-immigrant sentiment — focused on “brown people”– and apparently aimed at using “the other” to galvanize the base, especially during the campaign.

In this context, language is an easy target; it’s the way foreign origins are most obviously expressed. We hear an accent, or English that’s difficult to understand, and tag the speaker as an outsider, someone whose allegiances might not be clear.

This is why Donald Trump criticized fellow presidential candidate Jeb Bush for answering questions on the campaign trail posed to him in Spanish in that same language; Trump turned what some might consider an admirable and politically useful skill into a mark of snobbery or out-of-touchness with “real” America.

Read the entire essay at CNN