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Speaking in tongues

Sen. Jim Inhofe is fluent in the language of racism

Because of course he did:

As the battle over President Donald Trump’s wall at the U.S.-Mexico border continues, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe introduced a bill this week that would make English the national language of the United States .

It’s called—and for the love of George Orwell, is this an overreach—The English Language Unity Act of 2019, and it would establish English as the official language of the United States.

It is an unnecessary piece of legislation, offered disingenuously, and infused with more than a trace of racism—and he’s introduced some version of this same piece of dreck since 2006. Other than that, Inhofe and co-author Mike Rounds (R-SD) should be commended for their efforts. The bill states, “English language requirements and workplace policies, whether in the public or private sector, shall be presumptively consistent with U.S. laws.”

Private sector, really?

Jim Inhofe, proud capitalist who has spent his life bashing government and its “intrusions” on our daily lives and entrepreneurial spirit, is now telling the private sector the limits of its outreach to non-English speaking customers?

Well, knock me over with a snowball.

There’s more:

The Department of Homeland Security shall issue a proposed rule for uniform testing of the English language ability of candidates for naturalization based upon the principles that:  all citizens should be able to read and understand generally the English language text of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the laws of the United States.

The word “generally” is ambiguous enough to drive a taco truck owned by two non-English speaking Uruguayans through.

The purpose of the legislation is to “avoid the misconstructions of the English language text,” which, let’s face it, if actually enforced would get Second District Oklahoma Congressman Markwayne Mullin deported.

(Thank you. I’ll be here all week.)

“Just as there is no country without borders, there is no unity without a common language,” Inhofe, R-Okla., said in a statement to Gaylord News.

Welcome to another performance of Bad Analogy Theatre.

For some legal perspective on all this, I contacted good friend of the column, Garrett Epps, professor of law at University of Baltimore and contributing writer and Supreme Court correspondent for The Atlantic.

Epps reminded me that in September, Inhofe, along with Angus King (I-Me), co-sponsored a bill which would require public schools to teach civics to “encourage more young Americans to be active participants in our democracy by communicating with their elected officials, engaging in advocacy and, when eligible, voting in state, local and federal elections.” 

Epps responds:

“Point me to the Article, section, and clause that empowers Congress to designate an official language and require Americans to use it when ‘engaging in advocacy and, when eligible, voting in state, local and federal elections.’ Why should such an imaginary ‘language power’ trump (so to speak) the First Amendment’s Free Speech and Petition Clauses? Why should the official language not be Algonquian, Cherokee, or Navajo? How is it that we won the Revolution, the Civil War, and two World Wars without Senator Inhofe to tell us all what to say and how to say it?”

The current language unity bill, as Epps reminds us, is a political stunt designed to promote division.

You can’t look at this proposed legislation and not see the stereotyping, fear-mongering, and cruelty that lies behind, in front and throughout it. It embraces the president’s lie that a marauding band of amoral brown-skinned drug dealers are coming to America to assault us, take our jobs, and suck dry our social services—when in reality most are coming for blank asylum forms. Trump wants to stop them with a wall. Inhofe wants to stop them with a vocabulary quiz.

Those mothers and fathers who are trudging through South and Central America to get here, their kids in tow, with a few bottles of water in a knapsack are risking their lives for the promise of something better—like every generation before them. These are exactly the kind of people, with the exactly kind of mettle, we want in America.

When my grandfather came from Poland in 1905, he emerged from steerage as his boat pulled into Ellis Island and saw this line from Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Those coming from Guatemala, Honduras and Venezuela—also wide-eyed and scared—will surrender their children to cages, and will have to know when to use their, they’re and there in a sentence before gaining entry.

In 2016, almost 5 million immigrants came to the U.S. from Europe, many of whom overstayed their visas—but there was no national emergency declared because a 24-year-old winemaker from Burgundy, France came to Oregon and spoke only French in the vineyard.

According to a 2012 Pew study, 92 percent of second-generation Latino immigrants speak English “very well” with 82 percent being bilingual. By the third-generation, 96 percent of Latino immigrants are speaking English. In contrast, 35 percent of second-generation German-Americans spoke only German in some of the counties studied. 

So Latino immigrants are not only learning English, as did previous groups, they are learning it faster?

“I challenge anybody to show me a third generation person in this country who speaks Spanish and no English, whereas we can find in the Census records, we can find those people in German speaking communities,” said Joseph Salmons, who studies language acquisition in immigrant communities.

So why the wringing of hands now?

Inhofe is standing (white) shoulder to (white) shoulder with the president who lamented immigration from “shithole countries” instead of allowing “more people from places like Norway.” This bill is a cheap sop, a bright shiny object to those who think America is in decay because they have to press one for English when calling Best Buy customer service.

Here’s Inhofe admitting as much:

“As I work with President Trump to secure our border and build the wall, I wanted to also take steps to move forward to establishing a national language to promote national unity and greater opportunities for immigrant families.”

You want to promote unity, senator? Pass legislation to get the kids out of the cages and back to their parents.

    The argument for making English the official language has been around as long as the country has. Here’s Benjamin Franklin doing his best Jim Inhofe imitation.

“Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?” 


In 1988, former Reagan Secretary of Labor Linda Chavez, one-time director of U.S. English, a movement to establish a national language, resigned after the organization’s chairman, John Tanton, lamented the following:

The tradition of the mordida (bribe), the lack of involvement in public affairs, Roman Catholicism, with its potential to “pitch out the separation of church and state,” low “educability” and high school-dropout rates, failure to use birth control, limited concern for the environment, and of course, language divisions. 

Franklin and Tanton, too, were concerned with the country’s unity.

It is at this point in the conversation that English-only advocates trot out President Theodore Roosevelt.

“We have room for but one flag, the American flag... We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language... and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.” 

Conveniently, they leave out the first part of the quote.

“In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin.”

How’s that working out for us?

“English is our first language, so you need to speak English,” the woman, identified in the video as Jill, screamed at Sergio Budar, the manager. “Get the f--- out of my country.” 

Bills about language are never just about language. In the House of Representatives, there is legislation  very much like Inhofe’s, authored by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). 

He’s the guy who said this:

For every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert. 

    Pájaros del mismo plumaje.

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