At a time when the Republican Party struggles to present a more welcoming face to the 73% of Hispanics who voted against it in November, two of its members have re-introduced legislation to make English the nation’s official language. Last month, Senator James Inhofe (R–Okla.) and Representative Steve King (R–Iowa) introduced HR 997, the English Language Unity Act of 2013. The act would require that all official government functions be conducted only in English, and that all future immigrants pass an English proficiency test as a requirement of citizenship. The bill drew strong support among conservatives, with 37 Republican co-sponsors.
If Republicans are trying to scare Hispanics away, they're doing a bang-up job. Last month, Ann Coulter’s histrionics against immigration amnesty drew face-palms from the party establishment, which had just finished underscoring the importance of making the Republican party more welcoming to Hispanics:
"If Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn’t want them in the United States, they won’t pay attention to our next sentence. It doesn’t matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think that we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies."
And just last weekend, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had to execute a deft political two-step to assure nervous conservatives that they would not be steamrolled by the growing momentum on comprehensive immigration reform — no small feat, given Rubio’s own role as the party’s most-visible Hispanic, and one whose presidential ambitions will depend in no small measure on his ability to reassure the base that he will fight for its interests.
Whatever the merits or drawbacks of making English the nation’s official language, the GOP’s xenophobic climate makes having an adult conversation on the subject impossible. Credit for the bill’s existence largely goes to ProEnglish, an advocacy group whose founder, John Tanton, has a long history of racism and xenophobia.
"I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that," Tanton wrote in 1993. He questioned the ability of Hispanics to "run an advanced society," and his fervent support for restricting immigration has been attended over the years with a marked interest in white supremacy, Holocaust denial, and eugenics.
The Republican party has a long and sordid history of using seemingly legitimate cover-issues to mask uglier goals. Former RNC Chairman Lee Atwater explained in 1981 how the party had learned to frame racist appeals to white voters in code words:
"You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N*gger, n*gger, n*gger.’ By 1968 you can't say ‘n*gger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites."
This lesson was not lost on groups like ProEnglish, whose executive director, K.C. McAlpin, explained the real motive behind the fight to make English the national language:
"Americans sense that their culture is under siege and they don't like it. Language is the fault line where this battle will be fought and the official English movement gives us the rare opportunity to play offense. We can capitalize on this to force the issue wherever we can - through initiatives and laws to scrap bilingual education, declare English our official language, and overturn executive actions via the courts. In the process we will expose our enemy - the multiculturalists, gain allies, and create a platform to educate the public about the threat to the American way of life that mass immigration represents. In the end, I believe, we will accomplish our goals sooner, and with less difficulty." (emphasis mine)
The United States is the world's most culturally-diverse nation, and there is a legitimate question of whether enshrining English as our official language would help bring us closer together. A 2010 Rasmussen poll indicated that an overwhelming 87% of Americans would support such a move. But the GOP’s use of the issue as a ruse to advance an uglier anti-immigration agenda means that any attempt by Republicans to have a serious conversation is doomed to fail. At a time when the right wing is reasserting its authority and the GOP is discovering new fissures in its relationship with Hispanics, the battle for English-only is one Republicans cannot afford to wage.