Seismic Shift in the Politics of Language in the U.S.?

By Chip Gerfen*

Cruz Rubio Spanish

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr / Creative Commons

Heated words between the two Latino U.S. senators seeking the Republican nomination earlier this year may have been the first time national-level candidates cudgeled each other over their use of Spanish on the campaign trail.  Current party frontrunner Donald Trump set the stage for it in June 2015, when he declared that Mexicans are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”  In July, Trump promised a crowd in Phoenix that he would build a wall between the United States and Mexico – a trope and applause line that still stands front and center in his campaign.  Seven months later, during one of Ted Cruz’s attacks on Marco Rubio – over the issue of undocumented immigrants – the Texas senator attacked Rubio’s use of Spanish, saying:

“Marco has a long record when it comes to amnesty.  In the state of Florida, as speaker of the house, he supported in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.  In addition to that, Marco went on Univision in Spanish [emphasis added] and said he would not rescind President Obama’s illegal executive amnesty on his first day in office.”

Several years earlier, in a Fox News interview during his 2012 Senate campaign, Cruz refused to debate in Spanish, explaining:

“Most Texans speak English.  If we were in Mexico, if we were in Cuba, we’d do the debate in Spanish.   Here in Texas, we should do it in English.  [My opponent] wants to do a debate in a language where the vast majority of primary voters don’t understand it, because he doesn’t want them to hear about his record.”

Cruz’s attack on Rubio’s use of Spanish was a suggestion that he used the language to deceive non-Spanish speaking voters by saying one thing in Spanish and another in English.  This use of what linguists refer to as implicature – suggesting something in speech (or in writing) without explicitly stating or even openly implying it – is something that we all produce and have to interpret every day.  But Cruz makes a number of implicatures: that Spanish hides the truth from most voters; that the public political language for Texas is English and that Spanish should be used in other countries; and that he himself does not to fully embrace a Hispanic identity.  He also said that his Spanish was “lousy.”  In the February confrontation, Rubio turned the tables on Cruz by mocking his Spanish, asking “how [Cruz] knows what I said on Univision because he doesn’t speak [Spanish].”  (Cruz responded in idiomatic Spanish – “ahora mismo díselo en español, si tú quieres” – that was much better than “lousy.”)

Such attacks are not entirely new.  As the Dallas Morning News reported in February 2012, Cruz stated that the traditional “American dream” was being destroyed by “letting people use their native languages and grow dependent on government aid,” suggesting that non-English speakers are non-contributing members of the society.  He also perpetuated the nonsensical but persistent myth that immigrants actively “refuse” to learn English.  Rubio apparently believes, however, that speaking Spanish is an asset.  Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush – from a white, patrician family – had no difficulty spinning his Spanish skills positively.  But things are different for people surnamed Rubio or Cruz, for whom language use is a political decision.  Whereas Cruz attacked Rubio according to an old playbook – one that conjures up suspicious behavior and a refusal to integrate – Rubio calculated that bilingualism and biculturalism can now be positives in national politics.  With both Latinos out of the race, the baton has been passed back to Trump, who recently asserted that a U.S.-born “Mexican” judge named Gonzalo Curiel cannot fairly oversee a class action suit against him.  Rubio’s portrayal of language as a political asset, however, may be the more accurate bellwether in the long run, even if his party’s candidate continues to embrace the old playbook.

June 10, 2016

* Chip Gerfen is Professor of Linguistics and Spanish and Department Chair, World Languages and Cultures, American University.

Child Migrants: Deepening Challenges

By CLALS Staff

A surge in the number of unaccompanied children fleeing criminality, family problems, and violence in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico underscores the personal tragedy of undocumented immigrants – they escape old threats only to face new ones – but the issue so far has sparked only the usual partisan acrimony in Washington.  According to U.S. government sources, the number of child migrants reaching the United States has increased 92 percent over the past year.  Some 47,000 have arrived since last October, and a draft document by the Department of Homeland Security speculated the figure could reach 90,000 by the end of the fiscal year.  (Only 5,800 children arrived alone each year 10 years ago.)  Mexican children still outnumber others, but the current surge is coming from the northern-tier countries of Central America.  Polls conducted by the UN High Commission for Refugees indicate that about half of these children are driven by criminal insecurity; 21 percent by abuse and other problems in the home; and the rest by other forms of violence.  The influx of these refugee migrants is not a strictly U.S. phenomenon: Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama have seen a 435 percent increase in child arrivals from the northern tier since 2012 as well.  The UNHCR has made an urgent plea for assistance.

President Obama last Monday declared the problem was an “urgent humanitarian crisis,” and he directed the delivery of aid to house and provide care to the children, who remain in government custody while relatives in the United States are located or other solutions are planned.  The White House also announced an initiative to assign legal advisors to those under 16 who are facing deportation but are not in government custody.  Republican critics reacted forcefully.  Texas Senator Ted Cruz said the crisis was a “direct consequence of the President’s illegal actions,” including allegedly lax enforcement of immigration law.  The Chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives called it an “administration-made disaster.”

Shifts in immigration numbers traditionally have been a function of “push” factors (poverty, violence and other problems) in sending countries and of “pull” factors in the United States – particularly the perception that safely entering the country and finding work is easy.  The Obama Administration’s aggressive deportation policies – physically removing about two million undocumented migrants – arguably have reduced the “pull” over the past six years, and it seems premature to conclude that the Administration’s recent rhetorical shift has shined a bright green light as far as Honduran hamlets.  That the influx is occurring in countries other than the U.S. provides further evidence that local push factors (as the UNHRC posits), and not Obama Administration policies, are the most credible cause of the surge, in spite of the fact that criminality and violence in Central America’s northern triangle have not shown a commensurate increase during this period.  Regardless, predictable demagoguery around this growing crisis probably will further complicate the Administration’s efforts to carry out those few progressive steps it has launched by Presidential order, including programs to normalize the status of “Dreamers” – undocumented migrants’ children eager to overcome the stigma and obstacles to citizenship.  The approach of mid-term elections in the United States promises that this humanitarian crisis will sustain more name-calling and political paralysis in Washington.