Pew Research put out a great report this week, A Majority of English-Speaking Hispanics in the US Are Bilingual. What I love about it is that it counters most of the stereotypes that Americans have about our Spanish speaking immigrants. In particular, there is this idea, “Immigrants today don’t want to integrate with the rest of society!” This is such a tired complaint, that it is almost funny. This is what has been said about every immigrant group at every time in our country. It is true in a sense. What is distinctly not true is that there is anything different about “immigrants today.”
Think about it from the perspective of a new immigrant. If you settled in Russia, for example, don’t you think that you would naturally hang out with other American immigrants? They speak your native language; they share your culture; they are more inclined to help you out. This is not rocket science. It wouldn’t mean you weren’t committed to your life in Russia. But really, where are you going to go if you want a decent hamburger? Your becoming fully part of Russia is not something that you would do; it is something that your kids would do.
Both my father’s parents came to the United States from Portugal. It is almost the very definition of “immigrants built America.” My grandmother worked a maid and my grandfather worked odd jobs — eventually working for Luther Burbank. They were eventually able to buy a small farm and lived off that and traveling around the area bailing hay for other farmers. Yet most of what I remember as a kid are Portuguese parades and a bunch of old people arguing in Portuguese. My father, on the other hand, doesn’t even speak the language. His older brother and sister are bilingual, however. And that’s entirely typical of immigrants to the United States.
So what do we see with those horrible “immigrants today”? It’s exactly the same. People who immigrate from another country tend to stick with their mother tongue — but note that this doesn’t mean they don’t also know English. Their kids tend to be bilingual. And their grandkids tend to be just as mono-linguistic as the rest of the country:
Strangely, the Pew article discussed the potential effect of the large Latino community in keeping Spanish alive as a language in the United States. I have no problem with that, but even discussing it seems to be somewhat racist — as though there really is something different this time with these immigrants. The data in the report itself show this really isn’t the case. In the graph above, we see that Spanish is dying out as a primary language. What’s more, census data indicate that Spanish is dying out as the primary language at home. But it may be the case that it will die out slightly slower than other languages have.
The main thing here is that we need to remember that our recent immigrants are the same as our past immigrants. Trying to put new immigrants into a special category is just doing what we’ve always done to immigrants. We need immigrants — desperately — but we hate them. And that isn’t right or helpful.