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"Multilingual" Government

"Chief among these misguided policies is the mandate of a multilingual government. By discouraging immigrants and their children from using the English language, this policy has erected a linguistic barrier that keeps many immigrants from becoming
full participants in the society they have chosen to join."
– Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.)

"Already we are seeing increased attempts by the Federal government to accommodate non-English speakers by printing Federal documents in
languages other than English. ... The cost associated with accommodating
each of the more than 300 languages spoken is astronomical."
– Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.)

"In one case, the IRS produced 500,000 1040 forms in Spanish and got 700 replies back at $157 per form, and this program is growing. I think it is time to stop that."
– Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)

Only a handful of federal laws mandate the use of languages other than English:

  • Immigration procedures: interpreters must be available during the physical and mental examination of foreigners seeking entry to the United States – 8 U.S.C. 1224.
  • Due process: court interpreters must be provided in federal civil and criminal trials that involve parties or witnesses who are not proficient in English – 28 U.S.C. 1827.
  • Migrant health care: bilingual personnel must be provided in federally funded migrant health centers and alcohol abuse programs that serve a significant non-English-speaking population – 42 U.S.C. 254b(f)(3)(J), 245c, 4577b.
  • Voting rights: bilingual ballots and voter information must be provided in jurisdictions where speakers of Spanish, Native American, and Asian American languages exceed 5 percent of the population or number more than 10,000 and have below average rates of voter turnout and English proficiency – 42 U.S.C. 1973aa-1a.

Federal civil rights law requires schools to take "appropriate action to overcome language barriers" that bar full access to the curriculum for children who are limited in English (20 U.S.C. 1703f). This was also the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in Lau v. Nichols. Yet there is no federal mandate for bilingual education. School districts may apply for competitive grants under the Bilingual Education Act, a portion of which are reserved for instructional programs that make some use of children's native language. Up to 25 percent of these funds may be awarded to support "special alternative" – i.e., English-only – programs.

English Only advocates complain bitterly about expenditures to translate federal documents into other languages. But the U.S. General Accounting Office investigated the practice – at the behest of Senator Shelby – and could find only 265 such documents over a five-year period, out of 400,000 titles produced by the Government Printing Office between 1990 and 1994.<1> That is, 99.94 percent of the publications were printed in English.

When federal agencies choose to serve the public in languages other than English, it is almost always to promote more efficient operations, such as:

  • to inform members of the public of their rights and responsibilities,;
  • to enforce various federal laws;
  • to safeguard the public health and safety;
  • to gather information – e.g., in the decennial census;
  • to support educational programs, including programs that teach English; and
  • to provide access to government and the political process.

English Only advocates ignore the fact that the Internal Revenue Service publishes provides certain forms, informational materials, and oral assistance in Spanish for a simple reason: cost-effectiveness. The amount of taxes collected as a result far exceeds the expenditure.

In sum, the accommodations now available to minority language speakers in the United States – minimal when compared to those offered by many other countries – hardly amount to "multilingual government."

English Only proponents have offered no evidence that curtailing such services would save money. To the contrary, passage of a "Language of Government Act" would probably add to the cost of government by making it less efficient. In a 1996 letter to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, the Justice Department warned that S. 356 could disrupt numerous federal operations that sometimes require the use of languages other than English. A partial list includes the Border Patrol, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, Community Relations Service, Civil Rights Division, Bureau of Prisons, Administration on Aging, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Refugee Resettlement, Administration for Native Americans, National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, and the Veterans Administration.

1. GAO, "Federal Foreign Language Documents," D-95-253R (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1995).

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