It’s tempting to treat Donald Trump’s claim that Jeb Bush “should set the example by speaking English while in the United States” as just another bigoted remark from a presidential candidate who infamously referred to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” (though he added that “some, I assume, are good people”).
Trump’s gibe — inspired by the fact that Bush, who is bilingual, often answers questions in both English and Spanish — is indeed further proof that he is willing to offend Latinos. But it also taps into a widespread anxiety that large-scale immigration, especially from Spanish-speaking countries, undermines national identity and threatens to turn the U.S. into a linguistically and culturally divided society.
That concern is highly exaggerated. It is true that more needs to be done to accelerate the acquisition of English-language skills by immigrants and their children — not out of any notion of cultural superiority, but because proficiency in English is and will remain a passkey to economic advancement in this society. A September 2014 Brookings Institution study of full-time, year-round workers found that English proficiency was associated with an earnings advantage “at all levels of educational attainment.”
At the same time, research makes it clear that the children and grandchildren of Spanish-speaking immigrants will master English. A 2013 analysis of Census Bureau data by the Pew Research Center found that 90% of the children of Latino immigrants were proficient English speakers (the same proportion as for children of immigrants from Asia).
Even if one believes that immigrants should become fluent in English, shaming citizens — or politicians — for speaking Spanish isn’t the way to accomplish that objective. On the contrary, just as sensible bilingual education programs smooth the integration of immigrants, so does a recognition by politicians and the political process that sometimes it’s appropriate to deal with U.S. citizens in a language other than English.
Under the federal Voting Rights Act, voters in many areas, including parts of California, have access to ballots and other election materials in languages other than English. That strengthens the democratic process. So does the willingness of a political candidate who is fluent in another language to use it to communicate with voters who speak that language. Accommodation is not, as Trump suggests, the enemy of assimilation.
Trump says Bush should “set the example,” but he is already doing that by reaching out to Spanish-speaking audiences in the language of their choice. Criticizing him for such outreach is ugly and unfair.