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Inside The Racist Push To Make English The United States’ Official Language

The ‘English-Only’ movement masquerades as pro-immigrant. It is anything but.

“This is America, speak English.”

This refrain is becoming alarmingly common — used liberally on angry Facebook pages and by everyone from angry JC Penney shoppers to belligerent presidential candidates.

During his primary campaign, Donald Trump declared: “We have a country where to assimilate, you have to speak English.” A moment later he added, “This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish.”

Unfortunately, this is not just inflammatory rhetoric — it’s also the basis of current and proposed language policy.

In February of this year, the Michigan House passed a bill to make English the official state language. The bill is expected to pass the state Senate, though it would need Governor Rick Snyder’s signature to become law. If it succeeds, Michigan will become the 32nd state to make English its official language and clear a victory for the “Official English” political movement.

Also known as “English-Only,” this movement has been around for decades, rising to prominence in the late ‘80s and early ’90s. America does not currently, and has never had, a legal designation of any one language as its official one.

Today, three major organizations are trying to change that––U.S. EnglishProEnglish, and English First. Of these, ProEnglish has the most active online presence and, notably, political influence: Organization officials have met with Trump administration aides numerous times this year. All three groups, however, have similar missions and goals.

They disparage “multilingualism” and “multiculturalism,” arguing that the lack of a “unifying” national language creates “linguistic ghettos” and limits immigrants’ economic prospects. While they maintain that it’s fine to use other languages in private, they advocate making English the official language of the United States, which would require that nearly all government documents be written — and operations conducted — exclusively in English.

That’s the movement’s long-term goal.

America does not currently, and has never had, a legal designation of any one language as its official one. Click To Tweet

In the meantime they advocate “Official English” laws at the state and local levels, as well as restrictions on the use of other languages in government, schools, and workplaces. To this end, they support English-only voting ballots, driving exams, and workplace policies, an end to bilingual education, and the repeal of EO 13166, an executive order issued by Bill Clinton which entitles people with limited English proficiency (LEP) to translation assistance for government documents and services.

They support the English Language Unity Act, which would make English the country’s official language, restrict access to translation services, and impose an arduous English proficiency requirement for naturalization. They also advocate for the COST Act, which would require federal agencies to document the expense of translation services, and the RAISE Act, which would severely restrict legal immigration and create a points-based immigration system rewarding — among other skills and characteristics — English proficiency.

Advocates claim that these policies, rather than punishing LEP immigrants, will “incentivize” them to assimilate and learn English. They repeatedly invoke the melting pot metaphor, praising diversity while demanding national “unity” — something which, they argue, is impossible in a multilingual society.

But while the movement presents itself as pro-immigrant, its origins are steeped in racism.

U.S. English and ProEnglish were founded by John Tanton, an anti-immigration and pro-eugenicist crusader who has founded numerous racist organizations. These include the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies, the pro-eugenics group Society for Genetic Education, and the Social Contract Press, which, with Tanton’s approval, reprinted the notorious The Camp of the Saints, a racist favorite of Steve Bannon.

Tanton was pushed out of U.S. English in 1988 after the leak of some astonishingly racist memos, and there’s no trace of him on either of the group’s official websites. ProEnglish, the group he founded in 1994 (the same year his publishing company reprinted The Camp of the Saints), contains only two mentions of him. This near-absence is unsurprising; Tanton’s more inflammatory statements — say, “for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that” — don’t exactly gel with the movement’s message of national unity.

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Instead, advocates argue that a “common language” would unite immigrants and native-born citizens alike. It would also, they claim, incentivize immigrants to learn English, save the government billions of dollars in federally-funded translation services, and improve immigrants’ economic prospects. But this argument hinges on two major assumptions: First, that LEP immigrants currently lack motivation to learn English; and second, that “Official English” legislation will lead to increased English proficiency. Both are false.

In fact, the real problem is not lack of motivation, but lack of federal funding for ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. According to The Migration Policy Institute, such classes are in high demand but, thanks to funding cuts, suffer long wait times resulting in unmet need. The incentive to learn English is already there — what’s missing is the means.

If the “Official English” movement were truly interested in improving immigrants’ lives and fostering national unity they would address this need, whether through support for increased federal funding or by providing free ESL classes and tutoring. But their websites and social media feeds offer no information about ESL class wait lists or suggestions on what to do about the problem.

As for the second assumption, it’s notable that advocates emphasize the potential benefits of their policies, not the actual effects. State-level “Official English” laws have existed for decades, so if they truly lead to increased English acquisition, wouldn’t we know?

The incentive to learn English is already there — what’s missing is the means. Click To Tweet

In fact, six of the 11 states with the highest percentages of LEP residents — California, Hawaii, Florida, Illinois, Arizona, and Massachusetts — had “Official English” laws for, at the time of data collection, at least 25 years.

States with “Official English” and low numbers of LEP residents, meanwhile, have relatively small immigrant populations in the first place. These data suggest that it is the number of immigrants, not the presence of Official English laws, that determines English proficiency rates. Mandating official English, meanwhile, does nothing but make it harder for LEP immigrants to participate in society. In short, “Official English” purports to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, with solutions that don’t work anyway — and, in the process, neglects real obstacles to English proficiency.

The argument that “Official English,” through the elimination of government-mandated translation services, would benefit the economy is also suspect. In fact, opponents argue, it would do more harm than good. English-only tax forms would result in lost tax revenue, monolingualism would decrease the country’s competitiveness in the global marketplace, and lack of translation assistance would grow an underclass of people who can’t access basic government services.

Even if “Official English” were financially beneficial, there are other concerns as well, including but not limited to free speech, public health, psychological well-being, marginalization of bilingual students, and — especially prescient now — immigrants’ interactions with law enforcement in general, and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in particular.

 In fact, some of the most dangerous consequences of inadequate translation assistance can be seen at the southern border today.

Such consequences are not new. In 2010 the ACLU issued a letter to the Department of Homeland Security regarding language assistance for LEP immigrants, and cited numerous examples of human rights violations enabled by lack of translation services. Difficulty communicating with ICE officers can lead to — or be used to justify — unlawful detentions, and despite ICE’s supposed commitment to providing language assistance, LEP detainees are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to court proceedings and fair treatment in detention.

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Detainees are not entitled to legal counsel, and only 14% have a lawyer working on their behalf. Those detainees who have neither lawyers nor English proficiency are forced to navigate a confusing court system alone, without translation services. It’s no surprise, then, that detainees with legal representation are twice as likely to win their cases than those without. The numbers are even worse for child detainees: While 73% of children with legal representation are allowed to stay in the country, only 15% of those without representation succeed.

While in detention, LEP migrants struggle to advocate for themselves or receive adequate medical care. As detailed in the ACLU letter, English-only grievance forms make it difficult or impossible for LEP immigrants to report abuse at detention facilities. (Notably, such abuse is pervasive.)

One particularly distressing case in a recent ACLU report on medical care in detention highlights the dangers of inadequate translation assistance. Moises Tino Lopez, 23, died in September 2016 at the Hall County Department of Corrections in Nebraska due to inadequate communication and medical neglect. Lopez’s primary language was K’iche, a Mayan language; he spoke no English and only a little Spanish. Instead of finding a qualified interpreter for either K’iche or Spanish, ICE officials enlisted a Spanish-speaking Guatemalan detainee and Google Translate to convey crucial medical information to Lopez (a violation of HIPAA as well as Lopez’s right to language assistance and medical care). Without a clear understanding of why he had been prescribed a seizure medication or the risks of not taking it, he opted to stop — and consequently died the next day in an isolation unit. (While lack of translation services harms all LEP detainees, those who speak indigenous languages are particularly marginalized.)

These problems existed well before Trump took office. But the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policies — and Trump’s opposition to due process for detainees — put LEP migrants at even greater risk.

Family separation can isolate family members who speak little or no English from those who could act as translators — and although some families are (slowly) being reunited, limited English skills can complicate the already-complicated family unification process. One recent case, for example, involves a 6-year-old girl whose family speaks an indigenous Mayan language and only limited Spanish. She has yet to be reunited with her family, and it’s unknown how well agents have been able to communicate with her.

The family separation policy has also lead to an increase in young children appearing in court proceedings alone. There’s a documented increase in racist abuse on the part of ICE agents, newly empowered by the Trump administration to disregard established protocol and migrants’ human rights.

The danger of English-only doesn’t stop at the border or in detention centers; it carries over into life within the country as well.

Despite the “Official English” movement’s stance against bilingual education, LEP students perform worse in English immersion programs than in well-implemented bilingual education classes. Lack of professional translation services in health care doesn’t just harm detainees, but all LEP medical patients — including, for example, a Spanish-speaking patient with a brain injury who was initially treated for a drug overdose because the paramedics didn’t know Spanish.

The ACLU has already defended a Montana prison inmate barred from receiving letters in Spanish, students banned from speaking Spanish on the school bus, and workers fired for limited English proficiency despite long, unblemished work histories with the company. In 2004, an English immersion teacher in Scottsdale, Arizona was fired for slapping and yelling at students who were speaking Spanish; she claimed she was merely enforcing the school’s English immersion policy.

The danger of English-only doesn’t stop at the border or in detention centers. Click To Tweet

“Official English” advocates often promise certain exceptions to their policies. ProEnglish, in language nearly identical to that in the English Language Unity Act, claims that translation services would be available for measures “protecting public health and safety…in the distribution of information to warn people about the dangers of diseases like HIV/AIDS, etc.” and “actions that protect the rights of victims of crimes or criminal defendants.”

They refer to such exceptions as “common sense” rather than in specific terms. But these concessions elide a larger problem: Without consistent access to translation services, LEP immigrants cannot be reasonably expected to know and advocate for their own rights. This, in turn, can make technically illegal acts effectively legal: Legal protections are meaningless if victims can’t fight back.

Still, you might be thinking, perhaps the “Official English” movement has good intentions. Perhaps they genuinely seek “national unity” and believe that their proposed legislation will benefit immigrants. It may seem unfair to smear them as “racist” over what could be nothing more than a policy disagreement.

But while “Official English” groups make a show of praising “diversity” and have carefully distanced themselves from overtly racist figures like Tanton, their veneer of non-racist respectability slips when convenient. ProEnglish’s Facebook page contains a wealth of race-baiting memes, ranging from the suggestion that LEP immigrants don’t pay taxes (all do) to the implication that “people who require translation services” are not native-born U.S. citizens (some are).

Despite the movement’s insistence that “Official English” laws would only affect government documents and services, numerous memes try to incite anger over any use of non-English languages — for example, this post lamenting people speaking Spanish at home, or the many variations of “Do you resent being ordered to ‘Press 1 for English’?” above pictures of angry white people shouting into landline phones. (The U.S. English page shares similar memes, albeit less often; English First doesn’t use social media.)

Although ProEnglish maintains their mission is non-partisan, their tweets include support for the Trump administration followed by the hashtag #makeenglishgreatagain, and the account liked numerous pro-Trump tweets months before Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination. Both their website and Twitter linked an article complaining that bilingualism in the U.S. “means a lot of promotions for Hispanics,” which calls into question ProEnglish’s stated concern for immigrants’ economic prospects.

And despite attempts to shed their racist legacy, “Official English” groups overwhelmingly focus on Latinx Americans and immigrants, implying a Spanish-speaking “takeover” of the U.S. which echoes John Tanton’s more overtly racist statements. This racist dogwhistling makes it difficult to buy the movement’s ostensibly pro-immigrant agenda.

While it’s tempting to dismiss “Official English” as a fringe movement, they have scored real legislative wins — and the Trump administration only makes their vision more possible. Already notoriously hostile toward immigrants, the administration has shown an openness to “Official English” proposals; the Trump campaign even, ProEnglish giddily observes, polled on the issue.

But while it’s true that language acquisition is crucial to social and economic success in the America we inhabit today, the movement’s solution would only exacerbate inequality.

Real “national unity” is achieved not through government-imposed monolingualism, but through policies and attitudes that assist LEP immigrants in navigating society and don’t punish them for failing to instantaneously acquire a new language. The responsibility of learning a new language, moreover, shouldn’t fall solely on non-native speakers, but on English speakers as well. A true commitment to supporting immigrants always, but especially during the Trump administration, requires that their voices be not only be heard, but understood.