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English Has Nothing To Do With Immigration

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- Of all the questions fielded by the Democratic presidential hopefuls during Sunday's New Hampshire debate, at least one should never have been asked. In fact, to their credit, a pair of candidates had the good sense to reject it out of hand.

Moderator Wolf Blitzer wanted to know if any of the candidates believed that English should be the official language of the United States. He posed that question after a series of others on immigration and framed it as "related" to that issue.

It isn't. You might argue that language is part of the current debate since Congress is considering whether to require illegal immigrants to learn English on the road to earned legal status. But that wasn't the question. Declaring English the country's official language has absolutely nothing to do with immigration policy.

If your gripe with the status quo is that America's borders are insecure, or that illegal immigrants cost us a bundle in government services -- or that, darn it, "these people are here illegally and what part of illegal don't you understand?" -- none of those things are impacted one way or another by whatever language newcomers speak.

So the question that Blitzer fired off wasn't really "related" to the immigration issue. Instead, it was wrapped up in what is driving much of the immigration debate -- this ugly, xenophobic anxiety that many Americans are feeling over cultural change and demographic displacement as the Latino population in this country grows and grows, in part because of immigrants from Mexico and the rest of Latin America.

Let's be clear about that. Although President Bush took knocks from the nativists for saying it, he was on the money last week when he implied that much of the resistance to the bipartisan Senate compromise on immigration was driven by a fear of diversity. In an interview with McClatchy Newspapers, Bush said that, growing up in Texas, he learned to "recognize the decency and hard work and humanity of Hispanics." But not everyone had that experience and so, he said, "a lot of this immigration debate is driven as a result of Latinos being in our country."

Bull's-eye. That may sting a little. But the truth will do that.

No wonder we keep getting detoured and convert so easily from talking about immigration to talking about language. The Senate took that detour last year when, in the middle of debating immigration, senators suddenly felt the uncontrollable urge to pass a symbolic resolution declaring English the national language.

Still, I wish that Blitzer hadn't steered the Democratic debate in that direction -- even if two of the candidates were willing to follow.

Former Sen. Mike Gravel won applause when he noted that -- while he spoke both English and French -- yes, of course, "the official language of the United States of America is English." And Sen. Hillary Clinton gave a dispassionate lawyerly answer defining the difference between declaring English the national language (which she supports) and the official language (which she doesn't). Making English an official language, she said, might result in non-English-speaking people being denied services such as court translators or bilingual ballots.

Sens. Barack Obama and Chris Dodd saw the question for what it was and refused to answer. Obama said that "this is the kind of question that is designed precisely to divide us" and urged his colleagues to instead refocus their attention on coming up with a legal and sensible immigration policy." When the immigration debate gets sidetracked by such questions, Obama said, "we do a disservice to the American people."

Dodd agreed that the question was divisive and -- noting that he spoke Spanish -- made a pitch for more language training. "We have too few of our people in our country that can understand second languages," he said. Sounding a lot like President Bush, Dodd insisted that since we live in a global economy, "we need to encourage more diversity" instead of wasting energy arguing about whether we should designate one official language in this country.

In their responses, Obama and Dodd showed class, character and -- given that most Americans support declaring the English the official language -- courage. These are not bad qualities to have if you're seeking the nation's highest office.

Frankly, I don't care if presidential candidates speak Spanish or French or Swahili. But I want them to be fluent in common sense.

(c) 2007, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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