There’s not that much that’s new about former president Donald Trump’s nativism. Rhetoric about the dangers of immigrants is old, even if the targeted immigrant populations change. Demands that new arrivals assimilate lest they threaten American culture and traditions can be picked out of political rhetoric for well over a century. A hundred years ago, Trump-like politicians warned of the threat to the republic posed by Italian-speaking anarchists. What’s changed is mostly the descriptors.
It is not surprising, then, that one of Trump’s closest allies — his daughter-in-law Lara Trump, who is married to Eric Trump — went on Newsmax to elevate one of the hoariest warnings about immigrants: They won’t speak English.
Trump noted that her father-in-law’s original campaign promise during his 2016 presidential bid was centered on immigration. This is true; even then, Trump recognized the political power of amplifying a right-wing xenophobia that his opponents refused to embrace. She went on to warn that perhaps there was a danger posed by immigrants, a more recent bit of rhetoric aimed at casting President Biden as negligent.
And then she got to the “globalists.”
“You have a lot of the elites around the world — not just here in America but around the world,” she said, “who think that we should have this free flow of people, that there shouldn’t be any borders. They have this globalist idea in mind. … That is ultimately the goal here of all of this.”
Again, this isn’t really new. It’s all dancing around the idea that immigrants here and elsewhere are somehow tainting national identities and, in Lara Trump’s framing, international elites intentionally facilitate this. If it isn’t “great replacement theory,” it is adjacent.
After Newsmax host Eric Bolling suggested that immigrants have to, say, identify the number of amendments to the Constitution, Trump said that, indeed, “you have to be part of a society whenever you become a citizen of another country.”
That was manifested, she said, in bilingual education.
“People are starting to see in a lot of even school systems right now where they’re teaching things in English, and they’re teaching them in Spanish, because we have had so many people coming from South America, from Central America, from Mexico and just kind of flooding our education system that they have to have a way to teach these kids,” Trump said. “I mean, this is the United States of America. We speak English here, but you go anywhere in this country, Eric, and you’ll find everything in English, you also find it in Spanish.”
This argument has cropped up numerous times. While most U.S. residents speak English, there is no official language as stipulated under federal law. That’s provided an opportunity for those interested in tapping into the same sentiment as Trump (Lara and her father-in-law). Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), for example, introduced a bill in March that would make English the country’s official language.
A Congressional Research Service report from 2010 notes that the push to recognize English as the national language can be traced to the mid-1980s. That makes sense in the context of the moment. Census Bureau data indicates that about 9 in 10 U.S. residents spoke English at home in 1980, with that percentage dropping to about 86 percent by 1990. The percentage of people who spoke Spanish at home rose from 5.6 percent to 7.6 percent.
By 2000, though, the percentages were fairly stable. That year, 82 percent of respondents reported speaking English at home; in 2022, the figure was 78 percent. The percentage of Spanish speakers rose from about 11 percent in 2000 to 13 percent last year.
In 1910, 95 percent of U.S. residents reported speaking English at home. Most of the rest spoke some other European language. Immigration laws were tightened a decade later — in part out of concern about immigrants from Asia and about those purported anarchists — and only loosened in the 1960s. Since then, Asian languages have surpassed European ones spoken at home.
On a state level, there hasn’t been a big shift in the density of English speakers over the past 15 years or so. On average, the percentage of state residents who indicate that they speak English at home has fallen 1.7 percentage points to about 85 percent. States that voted for Donald Trump in 2020 (shown with red arrows below) had higher average densities of English speakers in 2022. About 89 percent of red-state residents speak English at home compared with 80 percent of blue-state residents.
Partisan politics are very much to the point, of course. Pew Research Center found in 2019 that Republicans were far more likely to express discomfort about hearing people speak non-English languages than were Democrats. A fifth of Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents) said it would bother them “a lot” to hear someone speaking another language; nearly half said it would bother them at least some. Nearly 6 in 10 Democrats said it wouldn’t bother them at all.
It’s hard to evaluate Lara Trump’s claim about schools with the available data. There are certainly anecdotal reports about schools and teachers struggling to accommodate non-English-speaking kids during the increase in immigration over the past few years. It’s useful to note, though, that Education Department data show the number of kids receiving English-as-a-second-language (ESL) instruction was flat from 2009 to 2020, as was the percentage of those students who speak Spanish.
From the beginning of federal fiscal 2021 (in October 2020) through October of this year, about 455,000 children have been stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border, many of them applying for asylum with their families. That’s a number that equates to 1 out of every 11 kids receiving ESL instruction in 2020, though it’s not clear how many of those children remain in the United States or might speak English. Nor, of course, would eliminating Spanish-language resources in schools improve instruction or reduce any accommodation struggles.
Lara Trump’s goal, presumably, is not to present a policy position centered on addressing the complicated and challenging immigration system. It is, instead, to amplify concerns about immigration that resonate with her father-in-law’s base of support and to present those concerns as an indictment of Biden.
At one point, she echoed Bolling’s assertions that “we need a system to vet people,” something that he suggested used to be the case for asylum seekers. In reality, a central part of the strain on the government’s ability to handle recent immigrants is that the asylum process under which those migrants are vetted is under-resourced and slow, providing a means for people to remain in the United States while their claims are adjudicated. Trump’s argument, though, was that we need to make sure people are arriving “for the right reasons.”
“That’s not racist, that’s not xenophobic, that’s not … bigoted,” Bolling replied. “It’s making sure that your society stays cohesive.”
The idea that immigrants must prove that they aren’t a danger, that they pose a risk of disintegrating society by, say, speaking a language other than English — that’s textbook xenophobia. They are also ideas that were offered up as fears in the less-stringent, take-all-comers Ellis Island era of immigration, an era that the United States survived.