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After Work: Hello! Hola!

It seems that plenty of people are offended that linguistic allowances are made for Spanish-speaking migrants to the United Sates.

Dona Gibbs writes compassionately about an issue that serves as a litmus paper detecting tolerance and bigotry.

Could someone possibly object to a sign on an electrical pole that warns bilingually, “Peligro, Alto voltage,” “Danger High Voltage” or one for restaurant employees that commands, “Lávanse los manos en el banyo,” “Wash your hands in the rest room” ?

Yes, it seems that plenty of people are offended that any linguistic allowances made for U.S. Spanish-speaking immigrants.

As for me, I look upon these signs as a chance to pick up a smattering of Spanish. I look upon the bilingual labels of pesticides and household cleaning products as a reflection of some harsh economic realities of the jobs that recent immigrants are forced to take because of lack of education and English language skills.

Time and again, the issue of making English the official language of the United States comes up in the House of Representatives. And time and again, it is defeated, usually on constitutional grounds that such a such laws would violate “protection of due process”, such as in courts where no translation services would be offered, as well as not providing for “equal protection under the law.”

This argument has been going on for some time. Back in 1780 John Adams, one of our founding fathers, proposed the establishment of an official language academy. This was shot down, as have been subsequent nation-wide efforts, as “undemocratic.”

State legislators, however, in 26 states have passed laws making English “the official language.”

The argument goes that allowing, much less encouraging, a bilingual society is an impediment to assimilation.

“They (meaning Hispanics) don’t want to assimilate,” say the critics.

This isn’t the case, according to proponents of bilingual education. Hispanics consider the biggest drawback to getting ahead is not being able to speak English, according to research studies.

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough classes available at times and locations where recent immigrants could learn. Even in New York City, long a gateway for immigrants, there were 80 locations in Manhattan but only a handful in Queens, a borough with a high population of recent immigrants.

According to a 2007 Pew Hispanic Center report, about one-quarter of first-generation Latinos say they speak English “very well” and the percentage rises with 90 percent of American-born children speaking English “very well.”

“Other groups came to the United States and they all learned English. Why can’t they?” the naysayers complain.

The report shows that the pattern of progress is almost the same as other immigrant groups of generations past.

What is true is that the U.S. has had a huge increase in total number of immigrants, according to the 2006 Census Bureau’s American Community survey. What’s surprising is that the percentage of immigrants to the total population has declined slightly – 13 percent in 2006 down from 15 percent in 1915.

Some experts have suggested that the clamor for English only is masking fear and hostility in small cities and towns in areas of the United States that have had no experience with an immigrant population. Gainesville, Georgia certainly fits that description.

Gainesville, a small town I became familiar with when my parents retired to a nearby bump in the road, is the county seat of Hall County. Situated in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Gainesville calls itself the chicken capital of the United States. It honors its claim to fame with a chicken statue set in a park where you might expect some statue of a Confederate soldier would be.

There in Gainesville, thousands and thousands of chickens are slaughtered and processed. The people employed to do this hot, smelly and, sometimes dangerous, work are Hispanics, most from Mexico. At last count Hispanics made up over one-third of Hall County population.

The Pew study showed unsurprisingly that immigrants with the least schooling were the most likely not to speak or read English. Mexicans, the study reported, had the least schooling.

I checked the local papers. There was an encouraging news story of a Hispanic outreach program by Gainesville State College. That’s dated a few years back. A 2008 story dealt with a sheriffs’ training program. The goal was how to initiate deportation proceedings for any person booked into a county jail who is determined to be here illegally.

I looked further and found that in 2006 a University of Georgia poll showed that almost two-thirds of Georgians believed that most new immigrants were living in the state illegally.

Makes me wonder if a lot of the “Learn English, dammit” isn’t driven by racism and other nasty varieties of xenophobia.

I didn’t have to look far to find this little ditty that enjoyed some mean-spirited popularity a year ago.


Hey, I can't read that sign out there
Please tell me what's it say
We have to have subtitles
In five languages these days
Now we don't ask too much
To share this land of liberties
But if it's not too much to ask
Could you please speak English?

English is my language
It's the language of this land
And every sign that's posted here
I should understand
I do not live in China, Mexico
No foreign place
And English is the language
Of the United States

The song goes on in this vein and to my ear each verse is more offensive than the last. It’s an anthem of discouragement rather than encouragement.

And discouragement is the last thing a hard-working immigrant needs.


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