It was a weird aside.
“Just over a week ago, a human smuggler was arrested in Laredo for locking — and really locking — a horrible 78 illegal aliens inside of a trailer,” President Trump said at an event to honor the Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agencies on Monday. “The Border Patrol agent who caught the accused and likely really saved many lives, he’s here with us, and Adrian — where’s Adrian? Adrian’s here with us.”
Trump asked the agent, Adrian Anzaldua, to join him at the lectern.
“Adrian, come here. I want to ask you a question,” Trump said. “So how did you — come here. Come here. You’re not nervous, are you?”
“Speaks perfect English,” the president added.
Well, sure. Of the 300 million people over the age of 5 living in America in 2016, 235 million spoke only English. About 229 million of that group were born in America. About 39 million people in America speak Spanish — more than half of them native-born Americans. Of that group, 85 percent speak English very well, according to Census Bureau data.
It’s not clear where Anzaldua was born, but he appears to be Hispanic. Two-thirds of Hispanics living in the United States were born here. Even among those born outside the United States who speak Spanish, 31 percent speak English very well. There’s no reason, in other words, to assume that Anzaldua doesn’t speak English well.
For Trump, though, speaking English is central to being American. During the 2016 campaign, he criticized former Florida governor Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish on the campaign trail. Asked about that criticism during a debate in September 2015, Trump identified English as central to American identity.
“Well, I think it’s wonderful and all, but I did it a little bit halfheartedly, but I do mean it to a large extent,” he explained. “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.”
“I’m not the first one to say this,” he continued. “We’ve had many people over the years, for many, many years, saying the same thing. This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish.”
His administration has pushed to favor applicants for entry to the United States who speak English. A CBS News poll from last August found that 6 in 10 Republicans supported mandating that any new immigrant speak English.
A Pew Research Center poll released in June found that the percentage of Americans who said they were bothered by immigrants who spoke little or no English had declined since the early 1990s.
That shift, though, was mostly driven by Democrats. In 1993, about half of Democrats and Republicans said they weren’t bothered by immigrants who spoke little or no English. Earlier this year, 85 percent of Democrats said they weren’t bothered by it — a sentiment shared by 59 percent of Republicans. That’s only 3 percentage points higher than 25 years ago.
Shortly before the presidential election, PRRI asked a question that got directly to the heart of the question: How comfortable do people feel around immigrants who don’t speak English?
About half of respondents said they didn’t feel comfortable around immigrants who didn’t speak English — including three-quarters of Trump supporters. About 6 in 10 white Americans and people over 65 held the same position.
One can read in Trump’s comment a tacit reassurance to the audience about the sort of person Anzaldua is. It’s a contrast to the way that Trump has often presented Hispanics living in the United States, particularly those who immigrated here. And particularly when touting the role played by the Border Patrol and ICE agencies.
In May, after speaking with people in the administration, The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey and Nick Miroff described Trump’s preparations for his first speech to Congress early last year. Trump prepared his speech with senior advisers Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller.
“Trump reminded them the crowds loved his rhetoric on immigrants along the campaign trail,” Dawsey and Miroff wrote. “Acting as if he were at a rally, he recited a few made-up Hispanic names and described potential crimes they could have committed, such as rape or murder. Then, he said, the crowds would roar when the criminals were thrown out of the country — as they did when he highlighted crimes by illegal immigrants at his rallies, according to a person present for the exchange and another briefed on it later. Miller and Kushner laughed.”
An administration official denied the part about the names.