“The Wall” Misses the Point

“Here’s a billion dollars for your wall. Oh yeah? Not enough. Give me five billion dollars or I’ll shut the government down.” This would be bad enough if it were really the central issue. It’s not. It is, instead, about language. The language. Presiona uno para continuar en ingles. 

Immigration has been a part of our nation’s history since its birth. In the years since our founding fathers gave birth to our nation, our immigrant populations have varied in size, origins and impact. With our nation cycling through periods of high and low immigration. The immigration level can change as the result of government action, as in after World War I, where immigration restrictions reduced the number of immigrants from parts of Europe. At other times, events outside our nation that have a less direct impact on us than a world war, can still have an impact on U.S. immigration levels. For example, during times of sovereign unrest in South and Central America, the number of people attempting to reach the United States grows.

Discussions about illegal immigration are often in the news. This is understandable. For a sense of context, consider that the illegal immigrant population appears to have peaked sometime around 1990 at about 12 million. In 2000 the U.S. government estimated the population to have declined to 7 million.  In 2016 the population appears to have been about 11 million.  Percentage wise, in terms of people in the U.S., the illegal immigration population floats between 3% and 4%. The majority come from Mexico.

Overall, they have a positive impact on our nation. They play an important part in the shaping of our nation. Let us also not forget that if we go back far enough,  nearly all of us are all sons and daughters of immigrants. 

In just the most recent three decades, our elected leaders have struggled with this difficult topic. A few of the key moments in the immigration discussion are:

The Reagan administration enacts the last major immigration reform legislation in 1986. 

In 1990,  the Bush (41) administration signs off on a deferral action allowing 40% of illegal immigrants a path to remaining and working in the U.S.

In 2006, the Bush (43) administration signs the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which results in hundreds of miles of fencing along sections of the U.S. southern border as part of a hoped for larger immigration reform effort. The effort to reach the larger, comprehensive reform fell by the wayside in the aftermath of 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2014 the Obama administration signs off on a deferral allowing 45% of illegal immigrants to remain legally and work in the United States. 

The issues of border security and immigration are real.  Despite what advocates of open borders say, in reality a nation without borders is not a nation, but rather a wilderness.  Despite what the most vocal ‘Wall’ supporters say, the United States is not being swamped and overrun by criminals from Central America. Seriously, ask yourself if it really make sense that a bunch of criminals in Central America get together over lunch and decide to form a caravan so they can all march to a U.S. border crossing to present themselves for asylum?  Do we need a secure border? Yes. Is a physical wall part of border security? In some places, yes. In some places, no. We need to address border security and have needed to do so for decades. 

Will illegal migration always be with us? To some degree, yes. To be sure, there are real costs associated with illegal immigration. Those costs are both monetary and social. It is equally true, however, that often these people still provide critical labor resources without which many businesses would struggle to keep providing services or goods.   The issue is not simple, despite what the more strident voices tell you. If it were that easy, do you think we would be having this discussion today? Despite what Fox News and MSNBC want you think, this is not about simplistic sound bites and easy solutions. Oh, wait, that’s the point – they do not want you to think. But they appear quite happy to do that for you, don‘t they?

We also must treat our legal immigrant population with care. We should welcome them for what they can bring to our nation, both in skills and culture. Moreover, declining birth rates among certain segments of our population, primarily white, also highlight the need for immigrants to continue to make the United States their home. Today, if for no other reason, the demographic math says we need immigration if we are to continue to grow our economy.  Put another way, they help ‘make the pie bigger’, so everyone’s slice gets larger. 

All of this said, the last major reform in our immigration laws was more than a generation ago. We have needed immigration reform for decades, just as we do with border security.

Here‘s the point. The central issue on immigration reform and border security is not “the Wall”, but rather the language spoken after immigrants arrive in this country. Historically, they (if not the parents, then the children) have assimilated into our nation and done so primarily through language. Customs unique to their countries of origin still flourish (think ‘Oktoberfest’ or ‘Taco Tuesday’) and bring color to our nation. But central to their adoption of America, and their acceptance by Americans, has been the English language. This is not an argument for prohibiting other or native languages from being spoken.  Just that the functional language has been and must continue to English. 

The central question is not whether to build a wall or some other kind of barrier, or what technology might help monitor border crossings. The central question is what to do with the immigrants who are in our nation today, legally or otherwise. Do you seriously believe we will deport millions of illegal immigrants? Here is a reality check: that is not going to happen, and anyone who says it will happen is either lying or grossly uninformed.

That said, the first step as we deal with any kind of immigration is to ensure immigrants adopt English as the outside-the-home language. The case is not being made here to ignore individuals who do not speak English. Nor is it to discourage multilingualism. The point is simply that America has been and should remain a nation whose national language is English. Accommodation yes, but we should not officially be a “two primary” language nation. Nor should we be one in practice. 

The English language provides the critical common social vehicle around which we have built and maintained our “American” society. There are of course other things involved in building our society besides the language. But language is the key one. Without that common means of communication, the other aspects become problematic. Is it asking too much of those who want to avail themselves of the opportunities our nation offers them to learn to speak English?

A Cuban-born friend brought this issue home for me.  While sitting in a cafe in a large city in South Florida, I asked him a simple question. “Why are so many signs and radio stations here in Spanish?” His response was enlightening. “There is no need to learn English. The Spanish-speaking population is now large enough to let them conduct both their business and lives in Spanish. They don’t need to be able to speak English.”

With each month, we get closer to that being a reality in much of our country. When most cities and towns reach that point, we will have entered a new age that will radically change what it means to be an American. If it means anything at all. 

Our oneness as a nation has been our strength. Key to that has been our language. We should not give it up without a fight. Sorry, but someone needs to say it, and if no else will, I will – in the United States, one should not have to “press 1 to continue in English.” If this offends you, well, that’s the problem and point.

Let’s welcome immigrants into our country, preferably by legal entry. 

Let’s also ask that in return for the opportunities our nation offers them, they adopt English as their working language. 

The issues of border security and immigration reform will not get addressed until our political leaders get serious.  Not until they begin a serious dialogue aimed at reaching a compromise on the key issues and moving the conversation forward. Their failure to do so hurts us all. Left, right and center. And speaking of the left and the right, are we really a nation where the majority of our citizens are the extremists on the far end of the spectrum – both left and right? No. But they do tend to drive the conversation to polar opposites and fuel the polarization the media loves to showcase and more importantly, fuel. Isn’t it time for the reasonable “middle” in this country to start thinking and start speaking up?

Our message is simple. Congress needs to get serious about border security and immigration reform. It needs to do its job. It needs to improve security at our border. It needs to remake the immigration system overall in light of the facts on the ground in the early 21st century. It needs to deal fairly and humanely with both legal and illegal immigrants who are already here, helping them to become part of “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” And it needs to do it in English.


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