Al Diablo El English Only

On Thursday, May 18, the U.S. Senate--which is supposed to be the “voice of reason” in the “immigration debate”--passed a bill declaring that English is the national language of the United States. The immediate impact of this bill is unclear, but if it becomes law it will definitely have real impact on the already untenable situation for undocumented workers in the U.S. And the bill is a rallying cry for the demonization, marginalization, and terrorization of immigrants.

The bill is not just symbolic. The Washington Post summarized the impact: “No one has a right to federal communications or services in a language other than English except for those already guaranteed by law.” Executive orders (issued by Presidents Clinton and Carter) mandating that some basic services be accessible to non-English speakers, civil service guidances (governing the conduct of government workers), and other multilingual ordinances not officially based on laws passed by Congress could well be thrown out. To give a sense of what this would mean in human terms, anti-immigrant “English-Only” groups have portrayed rules that require that translation services be available for patients at medical facilities as multi-lingualism run amuck and an example of things that should be ended by this bill.

The Senate vote was part of an escalating “I'm more of an immigrant basher than you are” dynamic among those in power. It came just hours after Bush asked Congress to spend almost two billion dollars to deploy National Guard troops and Border Patrol agents on the U.S.-Mexico border. And Bush has also endorsed the construction of 370 miles of southern border fences.

Along with depriving people--regardless of immigration status--of essential services, English-only laws degrade and dehumanize people. Only a generation ago, students were beaten in schools for speaking Spanish in schools in this country. And before that, Native Americans literally had their languages beaten out of them in schools.

The Senate bill also creates new English-language, as well as new U.S. history and culture, tests for citizenship. These new tests are reminiscent of the days when “literacy tests,” demanding detailed knowledge of arcane constitutional law, were used to keep Black people in the South from voting.

The Senate passed an amendment to the “National Language” bill that said that nothing "shall diminish or expand any existing rights" regarding multilingual services. But this amendment conflicts with the law itself--which explicitly does get rid of many existing rights. The differences are supposed to be worked out in a conference with the House of Representatives, which is even more of a bastion of anti-immigrant pogromism.

Superexploitation and Centrifugal Forces

The Senate bill declaring English the U.S. national language is part of a whole package of radically restructuring the ways that the rulers of this country viciously exploit undocumented immigrants and rely on superprofits generated by their work. And, at the same time, those in power are trying to re-cohere the U.S. under new norms dictated by changes in the global economy. That process is having a very destabilizing impact on the lives of broad sections of people in this country.

In that context, declaring English the “national language” is part of attempts by the U.S. rulers to polarize society in a way that isolates immigrants and blames them for what everyone else is going through.

Inanalyzing Bush's televised speech on immigration, we wrote:

“It’s important to get this point... The needs of the U.S. imperialists for immigrant labor on the one hand, and the ways in which the presence of millions of immigrants undermines the uniformity and ‘cohesiveness’ of American culture, politics and thinking, forms a sharp contradiction for the U.S. rulers; and their very efforts to deal with this, as we showed....can give rise to further centrifugal forces.

“It’s not for nothing that Bush demanded in his speech that people speak English and ‘respect the flag’ as a symbol of ‘shared ideals,’ and that the Senate followed up by passing a law declaring English the ‘national language’; and it’s not for nothing that both the open enemies, as well as some of the friends (both well-meaning and false) of the immigrants make an issue out of people flying flags other than the U.S. imperialist rag. The U.S. rulers have real concern over holding this country together, on a reactionary basis, and they are using this crisis to push a very ugly xenophobia (that is, hatred of foreigners).

“They are using immigrants as scapegoats for all the insecurities and problems and fears of the future that their system has forced on the majority of people in this country. And at the same time, they are trying to make the immigrants feel alone and isolated. ‘Blame them for your lives,’ the rulers tell the native-born, pointing to the immigrants. ‘They’ll never help you,’ these same rulers say to the immigrants, pointing to the native-born. This is a very ugly game, one that has historically led to death camps, and it has to be understood for what it is and opposed.”

From “The 'Border Crisis' And Revolution: Stepping Back on Some Strategic Dimensions,” Revolution #48, May 28, 2006

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