After centuries of welcoming the worlds tired, poor, huddled masses to our shores, Americans are sending out a new message: Speak English, or get out. In response to increases in immigration, both legal and otherwise, and to controversial translations of the national anthem and pledge of allegiance, 28 states and increasing numbers of cities across the U.S. are declaring English their official language. Theres even a Pennsylvania sandwich shop where you cant order the famous Philly cheese steak unless you order it in English.
Anti-immigration forces are pushing for official English on the federal level as well. On Feb. 12, Rep. Steve King (R-Ia) reintroduced the “English Language Unity Act of 2007” (H.R. 997), a bill that has been kicking around in Congress for years, which would make English the official language of the United States. Bills like this arise from the fear that English, supposedly the glue holding a diverse and restless America together, is threatened by speakers of other languages.
At first glance, the English Unity Act seems sensible. Declaring English official confirms what we already know: according to the 2000 Census, over 94% of Americans speak English. While the bill privileges English, it allows other languages to be used by the government to promote trade and tourism, protect public health and safety, preserve Native American languages, and teach foreign languages in school.
But Rep. King’s bill also reveals the paranoia behind all official language legislation. It privileges the English versions of our laws because the bill’s sponsors, who surely don’t object to translating the Bible into English, insist that translating our laws, not to mention sacred secular texts like the Star-Spangled Banner and the Pledge of Allegiance, will distort or pervert their meaning. In any case such protection isn’t necessary, because our laws have always been written, interpreted, and enforced in English.
The bill further requires that all citizens know enough English to read and understand America’s Constitution and its laws, a requirement that seems unconstitutionally vague and ignores the fact that their meaning is regularly disputed by native English speakers who argue over it all the way to the Supreme Court.
H.R. 997 contains one last questionable provision allowing anyone injured by a violation of the English Language Unity Act to sue for relief. Not only does this pave the way for nuisance suits, it’s also not clear that anyone has ever met a government employee who refused to speak to them in English (most can’t speak another language anyway).
The English Language Unity Act isn’t an idealistic celebration of American unity, like the Fourth of July. It’s actually aimed at Mexican immigrants, whose numbers Steve King is eager to reduce. In addition to mandating English, King actively supports an electrified fence across our border with Mexico (he demonstrated such a fence before the House of Representatives, and offered to build it himself), and he opposes the current practice of automatically granting citizenship to anyone born in the U.S.
When he was a state senator King wrote Iowa’s official English law, which passed in 2002 amidst a panic that Spanish speakers were invading the state. It’s true that the Census showed a doubling of Iowa’s Spanish-speaking population between 1990 and 2000, from 1.5% to 2.9% of the total population. But that increase hardly constitutes an invading horde, and besides, most of Iowa’s 80,000 Hispanics speak English as well as Spanish and pose no threat either to English or to national unity.
King introduced the English Language Unity Act on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday because Lincoln brought a nation torn by Civil War back together again, and King thinks that a nation threatened by Mexican immigration can be held together by a border fence and an official language. Many states in the former Confederacy don’t celebrate Lincoln’s birthday. Yet once they were brought back into the Union they stayed, because it takes more than a holiday to unify a nation. And as the British found out in 1776, and Lincoln found out in 1861, it takes more than a language, as well.
What holds the United States together isn’t the English language but our laws, customs, traditions, and spirit. We don’t need to add an official language to that mix because today’s immigrants are already learning English as fast as they can, and making English official, whether it’s at a restaurant counter or at the township, state, or federal level, sends immigrants a message even stronger than an electrified fence, that they’re just not welcome here.