The big news on the demographic front is a report from the U.S. Census Bureau that Hispanics – at 39 million strong – have surpassed blacks as the nations largest minority group. Demographers have known this for some time but were waiting for an official pronouncement. Perhaps the most important news from the Census report is a stat that most reporters overlooked: from 2000 to 2003 Hispanics accounted for half the national increase of the U.S. population.
Hispanics make up the bulk of our legal and illegal immigrants, and already comprise a majority or near majority in cities such as Miami, Denver, Houston, San Antonio and Los Angeles. They will soon comprise the majority in much of the American Southwest. If immigration and birth rates continue as they are (and there is no reason to think they wont) we could well see the creation of an American Quebec.
Whether or not this will happen depends on the ability of the United States to integrate the newcomers into the mainstream of American society. Historically, learning English has been the key to assimilation for new immigrants. If this is used as a measurement, then the melting pot is clearly broken. The 2000 Census found that 21.3 million Americans (8%of the population) are classified as “limited English proficient,” a 52% increase from 1990, and more than double the 1980 total. More than five million of these people were born in the United States.
The U.S. government makes it easy for immigrants to function in their native languages through bilingual education, multilingual ballots and drivers license exams, government funded translators in courts, schools and hospitals, and a multitude of other programs. Providing most essential services to immigrants in their native languages is not only expensive for American taxpayers, it serves to keep immigrants linguistically isolated.
We need only look to Canada to see the problems a multilingual society can bring. Americas northern neighbor faces a severe crisis over the issue of language. In 1995, the predominately French-speaking province of Quebec came within a few thousand votes of seceding from Canada. The secessionist Parti Quebecois ruled the province until this year. The national government must continually cater to Quebec to preserve order and maintain a cohesive government. This has spurred secessionist movements in English speaking Western Canada on the grounds that the Canadian government favors French speakers.
It is clear that many French-speaking Canadians do not feel any attachment to Canada or to their English-speaking countrymen. During the 1998 Nagano Olympics, Francophone Quebec athletes telephoned their members of the National Assembly to complain that all of the Canadian flag waving in Canada’s athletes’ residence was damaging their spirit and therefore hurting their ability to compete. Skier Jean-Luc Brassard complained that his poor performance was due to having to see the flag paraded up and down his hallway every time Canada won a medal. He also said that he regretted being the flag-bearer for Canada during the opening ceremonies.
Battles over language rage across the globe . However, since Canada is so similar, it offers the most instructive warning for the United States. While the policy of official multilingualism has led to disunity, resentment and near secession, it is also very costly. Canada’s dual-language requirement costs approximately $4 billion each year. Canada has one-tenth the population of the United States and spent that amount accommodating only two languages. A similar language policy would cost the United States much more than $4 billion a year as we have a greater population and many more languages to accommodate.
Unless the United States changes course, we are clearly on the road to a Canadian style system of linguistic enclaves, wasteful government expenses, language battles that fuel ethnic resentments and, in the long run, serious ethnic and linguistic separatist movements. What is at stake here is the unity of our nation. Creating an America- style Quebec in the Southwest and other “linguistic islands” in other parts of the United States. will be a disaster far exceeding that of the Canadian problem. We now have over eight percent of the population that cannot speak English proficiently. What happens when that number turns to 25% that cannot speak English at all?
Declaring English to be the official language of the United States government would bring back the incentive to learn English. A bill in Congress would make this a reality. The “English Language Unity Act,” H.R. 997, was introduced earlier this year. The bill already has 74 co-sponsors and is starting to make some waves on the talk radio circuit. If it passes, we can start to rebuild the American assimilation process and lessen the amount of linguistic separation in the United States. If it fails, we might have lost the last best chance for a sensible and cohesive language policy in this country. If that happens we can say hasta la vista to the “United” States and Adelante to Canadian style discord over the issues of language and ethnicity.