Every once in a while, when anti-immigrant sentiment is running high, Congress will revive the "English-only" debate, which was last a topic of national conversation during the 2006-2007 push for immigration reform. But the most recent attempt to make English the official language of the United States came out of the blue, the day before Congress's August recess. Led by Representative Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution held a hearing on an English-only bill that would require all federal government communications—including voting materials—to be printed in English. The proposal would nullify a Clinton-era law requiring that federal agencies provide interpreters for non-English speakers for certain activities. In protest, Representative John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, voiced his opposition in Spanish: "Hoy en día, los inmigrantes de Asia o América Latina son los objetivos de la demonización y la discriminación. Un día, nuestro país mirará hacia atrás a este período con vergüenza y arrepentimiento." ("Today, Asian or Latin-American immigrants are the objects of demonization and discrimination. One day, our country will look back on this period with regret and embarrassment.")
Given the gridlock in Congress and the timing of the debate, this bill has little chance of passing—if legislators can't get it together to help the economy, the specter of Spanish on posters at the DMV isn't likely to spur them to action. But it betrays a fear that manifests itself repeatedly, albeit in different ways.
The first thing to understand about the "English-only" idea is that it's only incidentally about language. King, the bill's sponsor, hinted as much in explaining its rationale to The Huffington Post: "The argument that diversity is our strength has really never been backed up by logic … It's unity is where our strength is. Our Founding Fathers understood that. Modern-day multiculturalists are defying that."
The right-winger from Iowa is talking about more than having your driver's license printed in English. He's making a larger argument about the logic of national unity, which in his telling is undermined by "diversity" and "multiculturalism." Differences, he claims, divide and weaken the country. In this case, the threat is the Spanish language and the Latin American immigrants who speak it. But in others, the thing that divides us is religion: Oklahoma passed a ban on Sharia law in 2009, and Tennessee is poised to follow suit. Of course, which differences count is a matter of identity politics—no one ever says that Southern accents undermine national unity.
The curious thing about laws that try to enforce what it means to be American—what "unites" us—is that they tend to be most popular in the places least under "threat." King's district—Iowa's most conservative—is 95 percent white. Among Kansas' 2.5 million residents, only 6,000 practice Islam. Passing an English-only law in a place where hardly anyone speaks anything else, or a Sharia ban in a state with few Muslims, has little practical effect for the majority of people (though it has a profound effect on the small minorities these laws target). The real purpose is to assuage anxiety among the dominant group about losing its power.
This fear is not entirely irrational, but the "takeover" isn't quite what King and other nativists imagine. It will not be the case that Americans like King will be crowded out and marginalized by an indistinguishable mass of Spanish speakers. There is a lot of talk about the need for immigrants to assimilate, but in reality, assimilation is a two-way street. In places with a high percentage of immigrants like New York City, immigrants do have to assimilate, but the city also changes with them. That's why the huge St. Patrick's Day parade is viewed as a a quintessential New York tradition—one that honors part of the city's ethnic history—rather than an attempt to subvert New Yorkers' sense of identity. The story is similar in my hometown on the U.S.-Mexico border, which is 97 percent Hispanic. People have not stopped thinking of themselves as American simply because a large number of people happen to speak Spanish as well as English.
At heart, things like English-only laws and Sharia bans reflect a basic dispute over what holds the country together. On one hand, you have people like King who think we must share a core identity; we need to be a "Christian nation," an "English-speaking nation," or a white nation for the whole thing to keep from falling apart. Thankfully, King and his supporters are in the minority. For most of us, the common ideals of mutual respect and equality are enough.