Harsh words match deeds

May 14, 2004|By Raul Yzaguirre

WASHINGTON — "Why should Pennsylvania ... become a Colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us, instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion?"

-- Benjamin Franklin, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc., 1751

"Once you get into this multicultural crap, this bunk, that some folks are teaching in our college campuses and other places, you run into a problem."

-- Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., WBAL-AM, May 6

WASHINGTON -- In 1751, Benjamin Franklin complained that German immigrants, who made up the largest group of newcomers to the 13 Colonies, would never be assimilated, and called for an end to their admission, along with Africans, Asians, Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, to whom he referred as "tawny" and, thus, inferior.

In that same spirit, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. used an expletive May 6 to attack "multiculturalism," adding his voice to that of William Donald Schaefer, the former governor and current comptroller. He had complained about a fast-food worker's insufficient command of English.

While an otherwise brilliant man, Benjamin Franklin was wrong about the German immigrants. Not only have Germans become fully assimilated, today perhaps one-fifth of all Americans can trace part of their ancestry to the Germanic states. But he was not alone. Indeed, politicians and experts alike commonly predicted that each succeeding wave of immigrants was different from its predecessors and would never become fully "American."

Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Schaefer are just as wrong. If there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that we as a society need to do all we can to encourage newcomers to learn English. The question is how.

Hispanic immigrants want to learn English, as every opinion poll on the subject shows. Moreover, research demonstrates that today's immigrants are learning the language much faster than did their predecessors.

But because Latino immigrants are no longer concentrated in merely a few regions of the country, and perhaps because immigrants who can't speak English stand out in our minds more than those who can, these facts about their willingness to learn the language tend to be obscured. And, according to the National Academy of Sciences, it takes from five to seven years of intensive study for most people to learn another language.

So it's not a question of motivation. Rather, it's whether there are language courses widely available and the time needed for immigrants to learn English.

I know that the Latino community is doing its share. Nationally, well over half of the National Council of La Raza's 300-plus affiliates provide some form of English-language training. In Maryland, our affiliates Casa de Maryland in Silver Spring and Centro de la Comunidad in Baltimore operate extensive adult education, job training and youth education programs to help new immigrants learn English.

But is state government pulling its weight?

Katharine M. Oliver, an assistant state schools superintendent, testified last year before the House of Delegates' Ways and Means Committee that although "Maryland has one of the highest needs for adult education in the country," the state provides instruction to "less than 4 percent of the target population."

At that same hearing, Gail Drake, an adult-education teacher in Prince George's County, spoke of how essential English classes have been in helping newcomers to go on to successful careers. But she lamented that there were a thousand people on waiting lists for adult basic education classes.

Nevertheless, Mr. Ehrlich cut funding for community colleges and English instruction by $9.7 million for this fiscal year. Further, after the General Assembly reduced funding by 50 percent for after-school and summer programs that help community organizations such as Casa and Centro provide immigrant kids with the extra time they need to catch up on their English, the governor cut another 20 percent with a line-item veto.

Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Schaefer can complain, exhort and use all of the expletives they wish, but if they really want to play a constructive role in helping newcomers learn English, they might start by supporting, not slashing, the programs that produce results.

If Benjamin Franklin had had his way, neither Mr. Schaefer's nor Mr. Ehrlich's ancestors would have been given an opportunity to make the kinds of contributions that they have to the state and the nation. They might think about that the next time they consider trashing Maryland's immigrants.

Raul Yzaguirre is the president of the National Council of La Raza, the largest national Hispanic civil rights organization.

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