One of my wife’s favorite books is a short story published by Leo Rosten in 1937 entitled “The Education of Hyman Kaplan.” It’s the tale of a particularly enthusiastic Yiddish immigrant who struggles to learn English during a night school class in New York City. The book humorously plays on a few of the more absurd aspects of our native tongue as well as the Old World tensions among the class’ various European constituencies.
Mr. Kaplan’s English is atrocious. His pronunciations baffle his instructor. He stubbornly insists on literal translations of idioms and his verb conjugation is typically awful for a non-native speaker. But boy does he try. Hyman Kaplan might be a terrible student and virtually un-understandable, but he sincerely wants to master English and be accepted by those in his adoptive country.
That mentality has been a vital component of each of the immigration waves in this country over the last century. My grandmother used to recall how her parents would be spanked if they were caught speaking German around the house. A Vietnamese friend related the lengths to which his parents went to learn English when they came over from Southeast Asia in the 1970s.
It was a brutal system, but it worked. Each wave assimilated as quickly as possible and that assimilation provided their children with the infinite opportunities associated with the American Dream.
None of the above is groundbreaking; many writers and politicos have noted that the same assimilation isn’t occurring to the degree necessary during our current Latin American immigration wave. But the point they always seem to miss is that it’s not the immigrants’ fault.
Among the millions of people who have entered the country illegally, the vast majority are the same salt-of-the-earth stock that comprised previous immigration movements. They’re hard-working, blue-collar types whose goal in life is to give their kids more than they had growing up. The fact that they’ve come to America at great personal risk tells us as much.
So what’s changed isn’t the quality of the immigrant; it’s the expectations we collectively place upon them. We’ve been led to believe that insisting immigrants learn English is racist; that imposing American culture is to assume its superiority. And in the process, we’ve subverted that very culture by implying to those arriving here that it isn’t superior. Who, then, could blame them for not assimilating?
So I propose a grand bargain to bring that mythical unicorn called “compromise” to comprehensive immigration reform. First, Republicans need to stop pretending that shipping illegal immigrants back to Mexico is an option. We’re too compassionate a nation and too much a beacon of Good Will to load up human beings on cattle cars and caravan them across the border. Creating some path to legitimacy is the only humane outcome that can be achieved from the hand we’ve been dealt.
But Democrats, in turn, need to recognize that for this nation to prosper, we can’t conduct business in two languages. Ballots need to be in English. School needs to be taught in English. Public signage and government meetings and all other manner of government-sponsored words need to be in English. It’s a simple step, and it would send a powerful message to those already here and those looking to come in the future.
Such a move wouldn’t be unreasonable in the least. If the United States is going to give something, it ought to get something in return. And reinstating the expectation that immigrants speak English is a small price to pay for a place among the most economically mobile citizens in the world.
We have millions of prospective Hyman Kaplans living among us, ready and able to apply their work ethic toward assimilation if only we’d expect it. Because the line between “illegal immigrant” and “American” isn’t legal; it’s cultural. And the foundation of that culture is a common a language.
NATE STRAUCH is a reporter with the Herald Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.