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Tom Brokaw faces backlash after remarks about Hispanics
02:52 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

If former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw’s comments that Hispanics “should work harder at assimilation” sounded familiar to you, they should.

The remarks – which Brokaw has since tried to walk back – ignited a firestorm of criticism.

“I also happen to believe that the Hispanics should work harder at assimilation. … They ought not to be just codified in their communities,” Brokaw said in a TV roundtable Sunday, “but make sure that all their kids are learning to speak English, and that they feel comfortable in the communities.”

Former White House chief of staff John Kelly made a similar assertion in an interview with NPR last year, saying Central American immigrants “don’t speak English and don’t integrate well.”

Historians have noted that this is a tale as old as the United States itself. The very same critiques we hear now about Latino immigrants were once used to criticize large groups of immigrants who arrived from Europe. And over the past few decades, this kind of comment has been a regular refrain as part of arguments against immigration.

But for years, study after study has shown it simply isn’t true.

As Mark Hugo Lopez, director of global migration and demography for the Pew Research Center, noted on Twitter, Latinos’ English proficiency has been on the rise for years. In fact, researchers have observed this for over a decade, he told CNN.

“Language use among Hispanics in the US reflects the trajectories that previous immigrant groups have followed,” Pew said in 2012. “Immigrant Hispanics are most likely to be proficient in Spanish, but least likely to be proficient in English. In the second generation, use of Spanish falls as use of English rises. By the third generation, English use is dominant.”

And in 2015, Pew found that English proficiency was growing while the share who speak Spanish at home was declining.

A more recent report from Pew found that nearly four in 10 Latinos said they’d experienced discrimination in the past year, and that 22% of Latinos said they’d been criticized for speaking Spanish in public.

“Language use is something that’s got many different aspects to it,” Lopez said.

It’s a common measure sociologists and researchers point to when they’re talking about assimilation, he said, but it’s not the only one.

A recent analysis by the libertarian Cato Institute think tank studied some of these data points, including educational attainment and labor market integration, and found that “Central Americans assimilate very well.”

That study cited data from the American Community Survey, noting an “impressive difference between first-generation immigrants with Central American ancestry and their descendants born in the United States.”

Of the group born in the United States, 91% speak English “very well” and another 6% speak it “well.” While in the first generation, 49% speak English poorly or not at all, that number drops to 3% in the next generation.

Cato immigration policy analyst David Bier pointed to his report, which was first published last year, in response to Brokaw’s comments and subsequent attempts to apologize.

Brokaw’s initial remarks came during a panel discussion on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that included immigration and the border wall. Brokaw subsequently wrote on Twitter that he was “truly sorry his comments were offensive to so many” and that he feels “terrible a part of my comments on Hispanics offended some members of that proud culture.”

“Tom,” Bier wrote, “should have just said he was wrong about immigrant assimilation.”

Brokaw’s apology hasn’t extinguished the outcry his remarks started. And he wasn’t the only person to draw criticism with comments about immigration and language over the weekend.

This debate goes beyond Brokaw

A Duke University professor sent an email to students in the Master of Biostatistics program that stirred similar controversy.

The assistant professor who headed the program urged students to “commit to using English 100% of the time” in a professional setting, telling them in an email that two faculty members had complained about international students speaking Chinese in student lounge and study areas.

She’s since stepped down from directing the program, and she and the university have apologized for the remarks.

But the professor’s comments have echoed far beyond the university’s gates. And Brokaw’s comments have spurred discussion far beyond the TV roundtable where he made them on Sunday.

‘People give me a look when I speak Chinese with my friends’

Across the United States and around the world, in light of Brokaw’s remarks and the Duke professor’s rebuke, people have taken to social media to share their personal experiences with language, assimilation and acceptance.

They posted about watching their parents struggle to learn a new language in a new country and about what it’s like to face discrimination for speaking with an accent.

Some said they understood where Brokaw and the Duke professor were coming from.

Others said such incidents show how far America has to go when it comes to accepting and understanding immigrants.

“I have lost count of how many people tell me your English is good and how many people give me a look when I speak Chinese with my friends. This is disappointing. Having an accent, or simply speaking your mother tongue can do harm to your academic and career in the United States. It is a shame,” one woman wrote on Instagram. “Here I want to say: I think some people should also consider the consequences in not allowing international students to speak their home languages, trying to silence people’s voices.”

Reflecting on Brokaw, writer Gabe Ortiz tweeted that the former NBC anchor is the one who needs to try harder.

“I remember watching my little sister while my mom went to ESL classes at night, with her notebooks that she would then study,” he wrote. “It’s Tom, not our families, being the lazy one here.”

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Arizona, posted a photo showing him in his military uniform.

Gallego, an Iraq War veteran, was born in Chicago to Mexican and Colombian immigrant parents.

“I assimilated pretty well,” he said.

CNN’s Christina Zdanowicz and Harmeet Kaur contributed to this report.