Obviously, the good folks in Nashville didn't ask for our opinion. We'd be remiss, however, not to say that we've been there and done that -- and we didn't like it. Dade County, as it was then known, enacted an English-only ordinance in 1980. It quickly became a source of endless legal headaches, heated community debate, political embarrassment and bureaucratic wrangling. Finally, it was repealed in 1993, to near-universal relief.
It is fitting that Miami should serve as a testing-ground because this is one of the most diverse communities in the country, often the first to experience the changes that eventually reach other places. In 1980, the human tide of Mariel rattled Miami and Dade County, undermining two decades of progress in absorbing smaller waves of Cuban migration. The English-only law was a reaction to the shock of Mariel.
This bears a little examination. Reactionary legislation such as this is always a response to some crisis, and the Mariel boatlift was indeed that. That was when Fidel Castro basically gave Cubans a one-time ticket to America for anyone who so desired, including prisoners and mental health patients. Wiki says 125,000 Cubans arrived in Miami over a six month period.
That kind of concentrated immigrant wave is bound to overwhelm the city economy, city services and create resentment. Human nature being what it is, it’s no surprise that the response in Miami was to circle the wagons and pass laws like English Only.
But that’s not Nashville. What “crisis” are we responding to? Yes, immigration has increased here, as it has across much of the Southeast. But certainly not of the level of a massive Mariel wave.
The new immigrants in Nashville, especially those of Hispanic origins, have provided cheap labor for our once-booming housing market. It seems to me that Nashville has absorbed these new arrivals fairly well. I’m not seeing the crisis here. The only reason anyone would think Nashville needs English Only is out of pure meanness.
Continuing on with Miami’s example:
What happened next made matters worse. There were lawsuits and legal challenges from the federal government over issues such as bilingual ballots. Civil libertarians argued that linguistic restrictions violated the equal-protection clause of the Constitution's 14th Amendment.
Mass-transit schedules were printed only in English. Doctors at the public hospital were forbidden to give Haitian mothers a brochure in Creole about caring for their infants. Bilingual signs at the zoo were permitted to remain, but when a new section opened up, the signs had to be English-only (until private funding was found).
That's the kind of nonsense that English-only laws engender. Nashville is a welcoming and inclusive community. Why trade that renown for a reputation as a center of xenophobia? The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, whose members foresee the damage this can create, is an outspoken opponent of this measure.
If the objective is to get immigrants to learn English, there are any number of better ways to do that without alienating the growing immigrant, largely Hispanic, community. Their numbers in cities like Nashville and Atlanta have been growing for the last few years.
It makes little sense for a community to rely on language or ethnicity to forge the bonds of unity. Miami's experience has been that new arrivals strengthen us, not make us weaker. They should be welcomed, not rebuffed. We are a people with forebears from other lands whose offspring have enriched our past and our present, and ensure our common future. For evidence, look no further than our newly inaugurated 44th president, Barack Obama.
Indeed. As I wrote two days ago, it is inconceivable to me that two days after we inaugurated the son of an African immigrant to the highest office in the land we would put up a sign saying “immigrants not welcome.”
The nation is moving forward in one direction. Nashville must go with it, or be left behind.