Trump says border agent 'speaks perfect English.' How would he know?

Jerry Adler
Senior Editor
President Trump welcomes Customs and Border Patrol agent Adrian Anzaldua to speak at an event honoring Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and CBP agents at the White House on Aug. 20, 2018. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

Donald Trump is a big believer in Americans speaking English. Although his wife, Melania, is reported to know, besides English and her native Slovenian, several other European languages, including French and German, Trump has only been known to utter words in English. The words are the same ones other English speakers use, though his sentence structure suggests his thoughts are being translated from Martian before reaching his mouth. The paucity of his vocabulary — his adjectives are pretty much limited to “incredible” and “disgusting” — and the legendary misspellings on Twitter — “I am honered to serve you”; “an unpresidented act” — and the progressive and alarming (to cognitive psychologists) collapse of his syntax render his impromptu remarks as impenetrable as … well, this:

“ … there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself — and the Russians, zero.”

Ivana Trump, his first wife, even said in an interview in connection with the publication of her memoir that Trump “did not know how to speak the children’s language,” which made me wonder if she had secretly been raising Don Jr., Eric and Ivanka in her native Czech. But the real issue was Trump’s egomania and solipsism, which apparently rendered him unable to communicate on any subject not of direct interest to him. “He was not able to do it until the kids came [home] from university and he could actually speak business with them,” she said.

But we know that Trump believes people in America should speak English, because during the campaign he made a big issue of Jeb Bush’s use of a language Trump called “Mexican”:

“Jeb Bush is crazy, who cares that he speaks Mexican, this is America, English !!”

Bush does speak English, of course, but is also fluent in Spanish, and he had answered a question posed to him by a high school student in that language. In one of his characteristic non sequiturs, Trump seized on that exchange during a primary debate:

“We have a country, where, to assimilate, you have to speak English. And I think that where he was, and the way it came out didn’t sound right to me. We have to have assimilation — to have a country, we have to have assimilation. … This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish.”

I agree that citizens should be able to speak, read and write English, and immigrants who don’t should learn, as most of them do. Living in New York, I hear a lot of foreign languages spoken, and I have even been in stores in immigrant neighborhoods where I couldn’t talk to the shopkeepers, which is annoying to me as a customer but not something I’d make a federal case of. They’ll learn English soon enough if they want to stay in business. But it certainly doesn’t bother me to hear people speaking a different language to one another, the way it upset the guy who went on a berserk rant in a Manhattan sandwich shop because the people behind the counter were conversing among themselves in Spanish. (“I pay for their welfare. I pay for their ability to be here. The least they can do — the least they can do — is speak English.”)

Hearing Spanish spoken in America, by Bush and others, seems to bother Trump quite a bit. His love of English was on display Monday at an event honoring the work of the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, when he called up Border Patrol agent Adrian Anzaldua and praised him for speaking “perfect English.” Proficiency in English is to be expected in a federal law enforcement officer, but Trump seemed to find it noteworthy that someone with a Hispanic name — it’s not clear where exactly Anzaldua was born — could speak “perfect English.”

As it happens, just a few days earlier it was reported that officials of the New York City Department of Education had been unable to gain access to more than a dozen ultra-Orthodox yeshivas to ascertain if they were providing an adequate education in English, math and other secular subjects, as required by state law. In fact, state legislators, bowing to the wishes of the politically powerful Hasidic community, were carving out an exception to the law that would exempt the yeshivas, which educate tens of thousands of children in New York City, and more in ultra-Orthodox enclaves upstate.

The ultra-Orthodox tend to vote as a bloc, following the advice of their rabbis, and were by and large enthusiastic backers of Donald Trump.

It’s an open secret that the schools run by some (not all) ultra-Orthodox sects offer minimal instruction to boys in any subject except Jewish scripture, and discourage the use of English, conducting classes in Yiddish and Hebrew. Without job skills, many end up relying on one form or another of government assistance. (Girls aren’t trained or expected to become scholars and as a result, ironically, they get a better secular education, although they aren’t generally expected to make use of it working outside the home.)

Shulem Deen, a writer who was educated in an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva but has left the community, wrote in the New York Times that his two teenage sons, who live with his ex-wife, “cannot speak, read or write in English past a second-grade level.” In his memoir he writes about a teacher at his school who commandeered a book he was reading because it was in English — and, Deen realized, couldn’t read it.

He wrote: “During my senior year of high school, a common sight in our study hall was of students learning to sign their names in English, practicing for their marriage license. For many, it was the first time writing their names in anything but Yiddish or Hebrew.”

To be clear: Tens of thousands of citizens, born in the United States, educated partly at public expense, are allowed to graduate from high school virtually illiterate in English, because that’s the way their religious leaders have ordained it.

What do you think about that, Mr. President?

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