The United States doesn’t have an official language, and Wisconsin doesn’t need one, either.
Some state lawmakers disagree, however, and are working to resurrect a bill introduced in 2013 to make English the state’s official language. Perhaps the most galling aspect of this new effort is lawmakers’ insistence that they’re doing immigrants a favor by elevating English to official status.
There is truth, of course, to arguments about the benefits of learning English. Indeed, many immigrants strive to learn English after their arrival, knowing a language barrier will limit their opportunities. They also recognize the importance of their children learning English, and some families even stop speaking their native tongues altogether. Economics often drive these choices.
Immigrants don’t need a group of Republicans, including state Sen. Steve Nass from La Grange, to help them understand the value of the English language. These lawmakers are fooling no one with their claims about wanting to improve immigrants’ prospects. On the contrary, the Republican Party has worked diligently since Donald Trump’s election to restrict immigration, portraying as a menace immigrants from Central and South America.
Context is everything with politics, and anyone who didn’t spend 2019 in a cave should realize this proposal amounts to little more than election-year pandering to a GOP base that believes foreigners are ruining the United States.
Anti-immigration sentiments have been part of the American experience since the nation’s founding. In Wisconsin, anti-German fervor led to the adoption of the Bennett Law in 1890 requiring public and private schools to teach English. It was eventually repealed, but a distrust for Germans lasted through World War I.
Discrimination against German immigrants didn’t make the nation stronger years ago, and discrimination against Central and South American immigrants won’t make this nation stronger today.
Anti-immigrant initiatives are backfiring. Many states—including Wisconsin—now have worker shortages. The nation’s population in the past year grew at its slowest rate, 0.5%, since World War I. The reality is we need more immigrants, not fewer.
Gov. Tony Evers did the right thing by stating recently that refugees, who are different from immigrants in that they are fleeing violence or political persecution, are welcome in Wisconsin. Evers snubbed the Trump administration, which has made it easier for states and cities to reject refugees. Ironically, even some red states have been hesitant to turn down refugees as their worker shortage continues to worsen.
Proclaiming English to be the state’s official language would send the wrong message at the wrong time. Fortunately, it likely will go nowhere. Evers understands both the need for more workers and the questionable motives of the lawmakers pushing this proposal and is likely to veto any such legislation that reaches his desk.