In early June the Senate passed an amendment to the embattled immigration reform bill making English the national language of the United States.
The president’s immigration package has proved universally unpopular. Liberals condemn the harsh requirements it imposes on undocumented workers, who must pay fines, go back to their home countries, and learn English before they can re-enter the U.S. legally, while conservatives condemn the bill for offering not punishment but amnesty to illegals.
Whatever your position on the immigration act, no one should welcome the National Language Amendment, which passed with strong bipartisan support, drawing little notice in the press, and few public comments.
The left should decry the amendment’s clear intent to make life more difficult for all immigrants, legal and otherwise, by reducing language services – both in English and in other languages – thus delaying rather than speeding up their transition to English. And the right should be screaming that, instead of making English official, as they’ve demanded for years, the National Language Amendment gives amnesty to speakers of Spanish, a language which Newt Gingrich recently characterized as ghetto. But both sides seem to think the measure is just fine.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) proposed an earlier bill ("The S.I. Hayakawa Official English Language Act of 2007," S. 1335) making English the official language of the United States. It eliminated the bilingual ballot requirements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And it required all ceremonies for admitting new American citizens to be conducted solely in English.
Like earlier bills establishing English as the official language of the U.S., Inhofe’s legislation went nowhere. So he dropped the bilingual ballots clause, substituted national language for official language, and tacked it on to the immigration bill.
While the legal difference between official language and national language is far from clear, characterizing English as national rather than official seems to be more palatable, at least to senators. Official suggests a legal requirement, something that generates debate and litigation, while national seems softer, focusing on unity and patriotism, qualities that are both desirable and unassailable. Supporters of the National Language Amendment think they’re just writing into law what everyone knows to be true, that English is as American as apple pie.
[As American as apple pie with a beer chaser: the sign in the window of the Pleasure Inn in Mason, Ohio, reads “For Service Speak English.” English was the bar’s official language until the Ohio Civil Rights Commission found that it violated state antidiscrimination laws. [Cincinnati Enquirer, Oct. 7, 2005]
But the National Language Amendment does more than name a national language to go along with the national bird, the national flower, or the national Christmas tree. In fact, the language of the amendment is taken directly from Inhofe’s "Official English" bill, which directs the federal government to "preserve and enhance the role of English" and specifies that no one has the right to expect the government to communicate in any other language. If the government does communicate in other languages, such communications do "not create a legal entitlement to additional services in that language or any language other than English." Furthermore, when forms are provided or filled out in another language, "the English language version of the form is the sole authority for all legal purposes." All this sounds more like law than apple pie.
Tying language to immigration legislation shows that "reformers" today are driven by the same goal as sponsors of immigration reform in 1924. Back then Americans saw immigration as just the kind of foreign entanglement that had dragged the country into World War I and was forcing us to play a bigger role on the world stage. Language symbolized the immigrants’ failure to learn English and assimilate culturally, and it was common to ban foreign languages and privilege English legally to drive that point home. The solution to the alien problem was simple: Congress shut immigration down, and between 1924 and 1965, when immigration was re-opened once again, Americans didn’t really have to worry about dealing with languages other than English.
Looking back, we’re able to see that earlier waves of immigrants did assimilate, both culturally and linguistically, despite the obstacles "real Americans" – a phrase that simply means those who had immigrated earlier – put in their way. Today’s anti-immigration forces, like those before them, portray the latest waves of immigrants as unassimilable, but they’re wrong. Hispanics – typically the targets of English-only laws like Inhofe’s – are acquiring English, and reasearch suggests that many are doing it faster than earlier generations of immigrants managed to do.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, an immigrant himself, raised hackles when he told a meeting of Hispanic journalists recently that immigrants need to turn off their Spanish TV programs if they want to learn English.
[California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger talking tough to an audience of Hispanic journalists in San Francisco, "You've got to turn off the Spanish television set." June 15, 2007, cbsnews.com; AP photo]
But the Spanish cable networks Univisíon and Telemundo, aware of the changing language preferences of their demographic, have already begun broadcasting English-language editions of the news, along with English versions of popular telenovelas and Spanish-flavored quiz and variety shows, so that Hispanic children and young adults who’ve already lost their Spanish, or who never acquired any in the first place, can watch their favorite programs in English, a language that they can understand.
Whatever happens to the immigration bill, English-only fans will continue their fight to protect English through federal legislation. English needs no such protection: according to the Census, 94% of U.S. residents already speak it, and the rest are learning it as fast as they can.
But if an English language law is passed, whether it’s official or national, the result will be the same: a message that tells immigrants, "Speak English or go back where you came from – and don’t come back till you pay a fine and learn some English."
We used to let people come here and then become American. Even the English colonists were English before they were American. Now we’re telling candidates for immigration, become American first; prove it by speaking English; then we’ll see if we’ll let you in. That doesn’t sound like any kind of amnesty to me.