When I testified against the bilingual ballots measure -- as I have each time it has come up for extension -- I was treated by my fellow Republicans as the skunk at the tea party. They didn't want to hear evidence that the overwhelming majority of Hispanics who are eligible to vote speak, read and write English. Indeed, for those who are third-generation Americans, three out of four can't speak Spanish at all. The relatively few voters who need language assistance could be accommodated by allowing them to take translations into the polling booth, to have family members help them or to cast absentee ballots so that they could get translation assistance at home. Bilingual ballots are a waste of money, send a mixed signal to new citizens that it isn't necessary to learn English, and cause resentment and ill-will among other Americans.
But my reservation of a third cheer for Arnold isn't solely based on the hypocrisy factor. The governor also seems not to recognize that what Spanish-speaking newcomers are going through today in their transition to English is nearly identical to what every group has encountered at periods of high immigration over the last 200 years. Arnold may not have met many German speakers when he came to California in 1968, but if he'd arrived 100 years earlier, he'd have been awash in German-language newspapers, German-language theater, German civic associations, and his children likely would have attended German bilingual schools.
As Richard Alba and Victor Nee point out in their authoritative work "Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration": "German immigrants sometimes thought of themselves as recreating a separate German cultural sphere in the United States, and numerous towns where they settled were given German names (such as King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and Frankfort, Kentucky.). At a relatively late point in American history, the great majority of the foreign-language press was published in German. . . . [T]he German language was unusually tenacious across the generations, supported by bilingual public education in many states."
Even today, nearly 1.4 million Americans still speak German at home; it is the fourth most popular foreign language spoken in the U.S. after Spanish, Chinese and French. The real question for Hispanic immigrants is, will they learn English over time, as the Germans, Italians, Poles and others did before them? The evidence, based on studies of Hispanic immigrants' children and grandchildren, suggests they will. But it might help if policymakers like Schwarzenegger didn't speak out of both sides of their mouth on this issue.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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