Monday, March 8, 2010

We Cincinnatians speak Chipotle fluently

Rachel, here's reading for your Tuesday afternoon: the column I wrote for my Mark Steyn journalism seminar. (He is awesome, by the way. I had lunch with him and a few Collegian people today and had a fantastic time talking to him. He wears great ties!)

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Hablo Ingles

In George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, linguist Professor Henry Higgins playfully pokes fun at America, saying it hadn’t spoken English in years. In 1921, critic H.L. Mencken wrote The American Language. The book authenticates the type of English spoken in the United States, found by Mencken to be more vibrant than its counterparts. In turn, the 2004 movie Spanglish brought a new word into mainstream vocabulary, characterizing a language spoken in the U.S. by both Latinos and chic Anglo-Americans eating in Mexican restaurants. Spanglish is part-Spanish, part-English; a bridge between two previously irreconcilable languages in a country that is currently composed of almost 16% Hispanic- and Latin-Americans, the second-largest ethnic group in America.

30 states have laws upholding English as the official language, with Oklahoma voting this coming November 2nd on a similar referendum. The movement has picked up momentum in recent years as a response to public-school classes in Spanish instead of English, bilingual billboards and the necessity for hospitals to have translators on staff. The ACLU and other opponents of this type of legislation argue that it is an attempt to discourage people from immigrating to the United States.

Immigration is not the predicament, however; the various means of immigration have proven problematic. Those not officially naturalized as American citizens may be just as patriotic as their counterparts, but the important difference lies in a spoken oath, the Pledge of Allegiance. Illegal immigrants have not sworn loyalty to their new residence, nor do they participate in citizenry acts like paying taxes or voting. People who immigrate to countries for better lives pursue a noble goal, but undermine their very ends by not abiding by the new country’s laws while still using its resources.

It is easy to be sympathetic towards immigrants: nearly all Americans were immigrants at one point in their family tree. Sympathy, nevertheless, is not the same as selection. There are currently 12-20 million illegal immigrants in the United States, with only a rough million being naturalized each year. Mexicans have the lowest percentage of naturalized citizens, being only a fourth of the total, but accounting for 32% of all foreign-born U.S. residents. Jeffery S. Passel, a Senior Research Associate of the Pew Hispanic Center, found that people are more likely to become naturalized if they speak English well, have a job and have a high income. The problem thus arising is the formation of a Hispanic underclass, which is radically transforming the country’s laws and attitudes.

Many Hispanic immigrants cannot speak, read or write basic English, not even after the required 5 years of continuous living the U.S., which is another requirement for naturalization. Many American cities, therefore, have integrated more Spanish into public places, like on transportation and street signs. In the past 5 years, there has been an active discussion of Spanish becoming America’s second language. Yet when people illegally immigrate into a country and are then accommodated, not assimilated, sympathies for them as human beings tends to diminish their lawless behavior in the eyes of citizens. The focus thus becomes human rights, not human action.

The overabundant presence of illegal immigrants in the country cannot be doubted, nor can it be ignored. After Prohibition was passed by the 18th amendment, for example, normally law-abiding ordinary citizens learned the reward of breaking the law and looking the other way, essentially allowing organized crime to gain a foothold all over the country. It would have been more effective to abide by the law and democratically work towards overturning the constitutional amendment, as they eventually did in 1933 by the 21st amendment. Similarly, current immigration policies need to reflect the law. If America chooses to assimilate all illegal immigrants, then programs need to be implemented for immigrants to learn English and take civic classes. But if the only national action taken is to accommodate people who are not willing or able to become citizens due to fiscal reasons, fear of being deported or a growing complacency, then the government needs to work actively towards returning them to their country of origin.

In an age of international terrorism, it is a potential security threat to have illegal immigrants floating around like free radicals in the body. While most immigrants are harmless families willing to work hard in an effort to make a better life, there are still those willing to break American law while not being subject it. The danger of illegal immigration is that it puts sand beneath the foundation of the country, undermining laws and, worse, the common citizen’s approach towards the law. If laws are not maintained, then the country cannot expect to continue without eventual anarchy.

Immigration is an inevitable issue for countries, but it is a process, not a right. Assimilation into a country should be considered inevitable for immigrants. When entering another country, for example, one would use the proper monetary currency. No one would suppose Mexican pesos to be generally accepted in Great Britain. The same goes for language. Language is a type of currency between people. They exchange information and an understanding using words. The language spoken in America is English, which is not a federal mandate, but it is a requirement for citizenship. A proficiency in English is necessary to actively participate in U.S. culture, but does not lessen the importance of knowing other languages, particularly Spanish.

A commonly-held language is necessary for a unified nation’s proper functioning. It is not impractical to ask people intending to reside in a country to adapt to their environment, nor is it intolerant to assert a dominant language. The high number of illegal immigrants in the U.S., as well as the sizeable amount of citizens naturalized each year, begs further attention be paid to the subject matter. Without clear immigration laws or expectations, American society leans towards the increasing divide prompted by the semantics of Spanglish.

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