Immigration and language are once again stealing center stage in California politics. The state, which is home to the largest Hispanic population in the country, is also the birthplace of national movements to make English the official language, to eliminate bilingual education and to cut off benefits to illegal immigrants. Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger finds himself in the midst of a brewing controversy about his positions on both language and immigration, which could turn into key issues in the campaign for governor.
I met Schwarzenegger in the late 1980s, when I was president of U.S. English, a public policy advocacy group that supports a constitutional amendment to make English the official language of government in the United States. Like millions of other Americans, Schwarzenegger had responded to a fund-raising solicitation from U.S. English, and my predecessor had invited him to join an honorary board of advisors along with such other luminaries as Walter Cronkite and Alistair Cook. In 1988, Schwarzenegger attended an event in Los Angeles to meet U.S. English members and donors. I found him bright, charming and very committed to the proposition that English is the key to success for immigrants who come to the United States, a common-sense view that most Americans share.
Democrats in California now want to use Schwarzenegger's association with U.S. English and his support for Proposition 187, which would have denied welfare and schooling to illegal immigrants, as proof that he is anti-Hispanic. Unlike Schwarzenegger, I am no fan of "Prop. 187" (as it became known). I spoke out against it at the time and agreed with the opinion of a federal court that declared the measure unconstitutional.
Nonetheless, I don't think that supporting Prop. 187 means you're necessarily anti-Hispanic or even anti-immigrant. Some 59 percent of Californians voted for the initiative out of frustration that illegal aliens were taking advantage of the welfare system and diluting resources that should go to legal residents of the state. I doubt many of those who voted for the initiative, including Schwarzenegger, understood that one of the provisions -- denying public education to the children of illegal aliens -- was blatantly unconstitutional given an earlier Supreme Court decision (Plyler v. Doe) on the same issue involving a Texas statute.
But what about Schwarzenegger's affiliation with U.S. English? Some stories have reported, accurately, that I resigned as president of the organization when I discovered that the founder of the group had once circulated a private memorandum that was both anti-Hispanic and anti-Catholic. The memo alleged that the influx of so many Catholic immigrants from Latin America and Asia was going to alter the demographics of the country because of their higher birthrates, so that, in his words, "For the first time in history those of us with our pants up will be caught by those with their pants down." A number of prominent members of the board of advisors resigned when I did, but Schwarzenegger apparently did not step down.
So does that mean Schwarzenegger agreed with the memo or supported its views? I highly doubt it -- my guess is he was oblivious to the controversy. In fact, the man who wrote the memo, John Tanton, resigned a few days after I did. In short order, so did the board of directors -- who were the actual policymakers for the group, as opposed to the honorary advisory board on which Schwarzenegger sits. None of the original founders, directors or staff is even associated with U.S. English today.
Supporting English as the national language, and encouraging immigrants to learn English, isn't anti-Hispanic or anti-immigrant. The only reason the United States has successfully integrated so many millions of immigrants over the last 150 years is precisely because we have a common language and culture. Poles, Greeks, Italians, Jews and others learned English and came to think of themselves as Americans, which allowed them to quickly move into the cultural and economic mainstream.
The key to success for today's Hispanic immigrants is to follow the same path. Ironically, the biggest impediment to this natural process is government policy, which promotes Spanish-language instead of English instruction for Hispanic children and Spanish-language services for adults. As governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger could help turn around these policies and make the American Dream a reality for California Hispanics.