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No mas in the Senate ...

May 21, 2006

THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) observed Thursday, "brings out the best in our society and the worst in our society." And what's true for society is doubly true for the Senate. Its 63-34 vote Thursday to make English the national language of the United States might not have been its worst moment, but it did highlight the dark side of U.S. politics.

Faced with the apparently nerve-rattling sight of millions of peaceful Spanish-speakers petitioning for inclusion in the American dream, Congress has become hysterical. An amendment by Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) to the Senate immigration bill would require Washington to "preserve and enhance the role of English." Leave aside the question of what exactly this means for current or prospective citizens. Who could have guessed that some of the same crowd that cheered the renaming of "freedom fries" just three years ago would today aspire to follow the linguistic and assimilationist example of France?

There's a good reason why France's neurotic micromanaging of its native tongue has failed, while the world has scrambled to learn the mutt-like dialects of a nation that usually couldn't care less. People will freely choose the languages that give them the greatest advantage, regardless of what politicians may desire. This is especially true in the U.S., which -- unlike that other country -- has nearly full employment and a track record of assimilation that, however awkward, is still the envy of the world.

Using the blunt force of the federal government to mandate a national language is the sign of a country that is in danger of losing its confidence. California and New Mexico, states that were majority Spanish-speaking when they entered the union, managed to master Ingles without calling in the feds. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao didn't speak English before she came to the U.S. from Taiwan. Should she have been sent back?

What's more, the very existence of this problem is dubious. The percentage of grandchildren of Latino immigrants who speak Spanish as their first language is exactly zero. Luckily, even if the amendment becomes law, the experience of the 27 states (including California) with similar codes shows that it probably won't amount to much.

But with each additional amendment saddling another requirement on either prospective immigrants or those who already live here illegally, the Senate will further discourage migrants to play by the rules and come out of the shadows. It won't take many more proposals to make this deal not worth a compromise.

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