Immigration And The English Language

Earlier this week, Obama addressed the emotional nature of the immigration debate:

Waldman sees language requirements as central to getting immigration reform passed:

[W]hy is the “make them learn English” provision so politically important? Because it’s the key that unlocks wide public support for immigration reform. As a group, Americans have contradictory feelings about immigration. We can’t divide the country into “pro-immigrant” and “anti-immigrant” groups, even if you might be able to make such a division among politicians or talk-show hosts. Apart from a small population of hard-core nativists, most Americans acknowledge that we’re all descended from immigrants of one kind or another, whether your ancestors walked across the Bering Strait land bridge, came over on a slave ship, or drove down from Toronto. They also appreciate that immigration gives our country vitality, and that immigrants are exactly the kind of hard-working, ambitious strivers that drive our economy and culture forward.

But at the same time, many feel threatened when they see the character of their towns and cities change, and nothing embodies that change more than language. When people walk into a store and hear a language being spoken that they don’t understand, they suddenly feel like foreigners in their own neighborhood, alienated and insecure. I’m not putting a value judgment on that feeling, but it’s undeniable.

Drum agrees. Yglesias has related thoughts. One of my main problems with liberalism has long been its occasional tone-deafness when it comes to small-c conservatism. A country is not just about laws; it’s also about custom and tradition and habits and landscapes and memories. It’s a living organism; and one of the things that makes a unum out of a pluribus is the always-evolving English language. I think culture matters as a way of uniting such a fantastically diverse country as America. I think symbols matter. Even as a secularist, I have no real problem with public nativity scenes or rhetorical invocations of the Almighty (think of Obama’s Second Inaugural).

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to control anyone else’s life. But as an immigrant, I value accepting and adapting to the existing customs and traditions of my new home. I came here in part to start over. I came not to be an Anglo-American or a gay American, but just an American. One day, I’ll even spell advertising correctly. And when that is the emphasis in immigration policy debates, immigrants will win. As, in America, they so often have.