Give 'Em Enough English

A Clintonian immigration solution


When Congress returns from its Easter break there will be only a 50-50 chance that it can agree on some sort of federal immigration reform. Should a compromise be reached it is almost certain to be unsatisfactory, inflammatory even, to large swaths of conservative voters who are demanding border walls and deportations as America's primary response to illegal immigration.

The intensity of these feelings extends far from the presumed central battle-ground in the Southwest. North Carolina is now convulsed over what to do with the 390,000 illegals in-state. The enforcement-only approach to solving illegal immigration is the preferred conservative response.

This stance prompted Raleigh News & Observer newspaper columnist Rick Martinez to up and quit the Republican Party. Martinez says that many conservatives he has spoken to simply are not interested in any solutions, only in punitive measures to apply to illegals.

"My GOP friends, who once praised small businesses for their ability to generate jobs, now describe their need for affordable low-skill labor as exploitative."

"Farewell Ronald Reagan. Hello Ted Kennedy," Martinez wrote last week in announcing his disaffection with the GOP.

But the real eye-opener, Martinez later said, was a survey of state residents presented at a conservative conference that found four out of 10 respondents would deny emergency medical care to an illegal. Such a prohibition goes beyond the limits on government services for illegals that California's Prop 187 contemplated, and Prop 187 is still viewed as defining the absolute far reaches of any possible immigration policy.

What's more, Martinez relates that, contrary to their first-hand experience in agriculture, many conservatives are arguing that government benefits, and not jobs, are what attracts illegals. Facts, in short, are not driving this issue; feelings—primarily fear—are.

There is also a dogged insistence across North Carolina, indeed in every fast-growing state in the Southeast, that illegals are to blame for the need to spend money to build new schools even as tract after tract fills up with Anglos. This canard, of course, is an offshoot of the utter inability of Republicans at all levels of government to actually control government spending per their supposed conservative principles. Instead, The illegals have become all-purpose, service-sucking boogey-men.

As their fiscal and economic case dissolves, the hard-liners' complaint about illegal immigration devolves primary to a worry about the rate of immigration—which, in turn, is really an assimilation worry.

Assimilation fears explain why federal legislation that includes some requirement to learn English wins backing in public polls. Further, at the state level, English as the official language is wildly popular among conservatives as a proactive, if largely symbolic, bulwark against cultural change. But symbols matter. Otherwise there would not be such a hue and cry over which flags are showing up at Latino street protests.

Here's where I part somewhat with my colleague Brian Doherty who considers complaints about flags and Spanish-speakers "not worthy of consideration." While I agree with Brian that these developments do not amount to an assault on the American nation, the responses they provoke need a direct answer.

Such complaints need an answer because they are driving bad public policy choices ranging from fiscal scapegoating to the enshrinement of a Euro-style zero-sum mindset that rejects economic growth and all its possibilities as the surest, most just path to a free society. When calm, sober types like Rick Martinez are throwing up their hands at the arguments they hear, such symbolic issues clearly matter. So to the extent that our immigration unrest is all about cultural symbolism, let's embrace that. There is certainly recent precedent.

The Nation calls it Bill Clinton's trademark "small-issue centrism"—an ability to take "big but often hollow gestures toward the center, pragmatic economic populism, and incremental liberal policy gains."

On the immigration front the big but ultimately hollow gesture might just be to talk up English at every opportunity. English today, English tomorrow, English forever. English. English. English. English: It is not just for muffins any more.

English at the federal level as part of a "path to citizenship." English at the state level too, belt-and-suspenders English just to be safe.

Safe from what is not entirely clear. But when there are boogey-men about, sometimes a night light is the best remedy.