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Yue Wang '12: Learn to be American

I want to assimilate. After all, it sounds fair that, to live in this land, one must learn the American language and the American way. So I sat down and made a list of things to which I must adapt. Item one: speak English. Check. Next?

I stopped and put down my pen. Over the past two years in America, I have been introduced to so many ideas that I couldn't determine exactly which ones can be deemed unambiguously "American." The same can be said for languages. My friends back in China often ask why I haven't learned Spanish yet. Considering how large the Spanish-speaking demographic is, how could I claim to have learned the American tongue when I still can't speak with a sizeable portion of the population?

Meanwhile, I have also been advised to pick up some Italian if I truly wish to call myself a Rhode Islander. Eventually, I gave up: If I am overwhelmed by the rich ethnic and linguistic diversity in America's tiniest state and continuously drawn to competing views and values on Brown's campus — a small place that projects a highly cohesive sense of unity and identity — my list of "American things" is bound to be neither conclusive nor authentic.

In spite of my initial intuitions, I can only conclude that learning to speak English does not constitute learning "the" American language.

Yet, there are individuals who believe otherwise. Last week, in a lecture hosted by the Brown University Community Academic Advising Program, Terry Gorman, the founder and director of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, lamented that undocumented Mexican factory workers cannot speak English after years of living in the United States. Gorman felt "offended" because English proficiency "would be a courtesy to the country where they were living." To learn a language, of course, requires ready access to many resources denied to immigrants, who often comprise a low-income group.

But these aren't the central issues here. The issue is the hypocrisy of those who want to force new immigrants to speak English.

For one thing, learning English won't endear those immigrants to Gorman — or more generally, opponents of immigration — one bit. Indeed, even if all the immigrants suddenly started speaking English fluently, the anti-immigrant ideologues would still have plenty of other issues to aggrieve them. Not only must those immigrants speak English, but they must accept a whole package of conservative values before they might be seen as "American." For instance, former President George W. Bush invoked "one nation under God" when he urged immigrants to learn English. He was clearly smuggling a religious motif into the debate about the national language.

Shouldn't we be concerned that if the country were to formally legislate a national language, the attempt to assimilate immigrants linguistically will be ineluctably mixed with less explicit but more constitutionally problematic efforts to co-opt them ideologically through scam "civic education" courses?

Moreover, the recent passage of legislation in Arizona that criminalizes the mere act of being an illegal immigrant makes it increasingly possible that racial profiling will become the easiest and most direct tool for law enforcement in border states to identify illegal immigrants. This severely undercuts the civil rights of both legal immigrants and citizens. In a worst-case example, the self-styled "America's toughest sheriff," Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., has made an effort to earn his title by resorting to unconstitutional methods to harass Hispanics in his jurisdiction. In light of the recent investigations into his office's questionable practices — which allegedly include discrimination against individuals who cannot speak English — he has generated further controversy by refusing to yield crucial public records to the Justice Department!

Another layer of hypocrisy here is that not learning English actually does not make new immigrants less valuable to opponents of immigration. The status quo, in which immigrants who don't speak English are condemned to permanent second-class citizenship, doesn't make them less attractive to American agricultural and service industries, whether in a Manhattan grocery store or California grape fields. Speaking to the House Immigration Subcommittee recently about his day spent on a farm in upstate New York, where the toughest work was done by immigrant workers, comedian Stephen Colbert grimly observed, "After working with these men and women, picking beans, packing corn, for hours on end, side by side, in the unforgiving sun, I have to say and I do mean this seriously: Please don't make me do this again. It is really, really hard."

Let's face it: No matter how reluctant some Americans are to accept immigrants as one of their own, they are still very reliant on immigrants for their contributions to the economy. What the vehement objection to the offer of a path to citizenship has accomplished, however, is precisely that the workers' human rights and decent pay can be conveniently denied. The true purpose of this striking double hypocrisy of the anti-immigration forces is medieval intolerance and savage exploitation through illegality.


Yue Wang '12 is a political science and German studies concentrator from Shanghai. She can be contacted at

yue_wang (at)



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