Senate Makes English National but not Official Language
If the United States Senate gets its way, English will be the national language of the United States. But not the official language.
The Senate voted Thursday to make English the national language of the United States. Sort of.
Moments after the 63-34 vote, it decided to call the mother tongue a “common and unifying language.” “You can’t have it both ways,” warned Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., a fan of “national” but not “common and unifying.” Two dozen senators disagreed and voted for both as the Senate lumbered toward an expected vote next week on a controversial immigration bill.
Inhofe led the attempt to declare English the national language, a campaign he said began more than a century ago. The Oklahoma Republican quoted President Theodore Roosevelt as having said that among other things, those living in the United States “must also learn one language and that language is English.” “If you’ve got any rights now you’ve still got them under this amendment” added Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
Democrats disputed that, and said the proposal would curtail rights established by an executive order President Clinton issued to extend language assistance to individuals not proficient in English. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada went further. “I really believe this amendment is racist. I think it’s directed basically to people who speak Spanish.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Inhofe replied. “I don’t think people will buy into it.” The Senate didn’t, including 11 Democrats who joined 53 Republicans to support the proposal.
Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., advanced the alternative that declared English to be a “common and unifying language.” It passed, 58-39, leaving the outcome of the symbolic debate uncertain.
A front page WaPo summary of the measures by Jonathan Weisman and Jim VandeHei notes,
The impact of the language amendment was unclear even after its passage. The wording negating claims to multilingual services appears straightforward. It also sets requirements that immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship know the English language and U.S. history. The amendment would require more thorough testing to demonstrate English-language proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history and elements of U.S. culture such as the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem. But its author, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), made two last-minute changes that some opponents said would reduce its effect significantly. By stipulating that the English-only mandates could not negate existing laws, Inhofe spared current ordinances that allow bilingual education or multilingual ballots. By changing the amendment to label English the “national language” rather than the “official language” of the country, Inhofe may have lessened its symbolic power. “In my view, we had it watered down enough to make it acceptable,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the chief architects of the immigration bill.
“Watered down enough to make it acceptable” could be McCain’s motto.
Obviously, this is pure political symbolism, as there is no practical way not to provide Spanish language services with a population that is 12 percent Hispanic and growing.
Further, English is already our common and unifying language and shows no signs of becoming anything else. While the growing number of unassimilated Spanish speakers is worrisome in the short term, the problem of ethnic enclaves forming during massive immigration influxes is a recurring one in American history. Invariably, past groups have learned English by the second or third generation simply out of practical necessity. One can not climb very high on the United States economic ladder without a reasonable command of English.
That said, the idea this is “racist” is absurd and tiresome. For one thing, the vast number of Spanish speakers are caucasian. Moreover, encouraging people to speak the language that will help them integrate and prosper in our society is hardly the equivalent of forcing them to the back of the bus; quite the opposite, in fact.
I don’t mind occasional symbolic votes and the message here is ultimately a good one. Making command of the language and heritage of the country a requirement for citizenship is certainly reasonable.