Brueghel Debate on 
English Only Legislation

U.S. House of Representatives
August 1, 1996

      Brueghel: De toren van Babel

In a contentious six-hour session, the House passed H.R. 123, the "English Language Empowerment Act of 1996," sponsored by Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Mo.) The 259 to 169 vote fell largely along party lines. The lawmakers rejected a "substitute" version proposed by Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), which called for an English Plus rather than an English Only policy. The 104th Congress adjourned without any Senate action on H.R. 123.

What follows is not a complete transcript of the debate, but a collection of highlights (and lowlights) excerpted from members' remarks. Statements are presented in chronological order and edited to minimize repetition. Amid forceful arguments on both sides, there are frequent misstatements of fact – canards about bilingualism – that cry out for commentary. 

So Daffy  will pop up as necessary to set the record straight. For more information, click on the icon whenever it appears. 

Representatives who participated in the August 1, 1996, debate include:
Robert Andrews (D-N.J.)
Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.)
Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) 
Henry Bonilla (R-Tex.) 
William Clay (D-Mo.)
John Conyers (D-Mich.)
Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) 
Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.)
Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.)
Lincoln Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.) 
Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa)
Thomas Foglietta (D-Pa.)
George Gekas (R-Pa.)
Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)
Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) 
Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
Gene Green (D-Tex.) 
Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) 
Steve Horn (R-Calif.)
Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) 
Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) 
Ernest Jim Istook (R-Okla.)
Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.)
Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tex.)

Toby Roth (R-Wisc.) 

This is an historic day. I frankly have told many people who have doubted this day would ever come to have faith, that the day would come when the American people's wishes were going to be heard. In every single survey that has been taken on whether English should be our official language, 90 to 97 percent of the people say, yes, English should be our official language. ... The people have spoken and the Congress has listened, and now we can say that Congress has as much common sense as the American people. ...

Now, in some 80 nations around the world they have official languages; 63 nations have English as the official language, and other nations have various other languages, of course. The gentleman who just spoke before me is from Puerto Rico. Some of the finest people in the world live in Puerto Rico. But in Puerto Rico they have Spanish as their official language, and rightly so. They should have that right. In Mexico, they have Spanish as their official language. And again, rightly so. 

Now, in this country we are told by the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education that by the turn of the century, one out of seven Americans will look at English as a foreign language. ... 

In America, we have always had the idea that we are the melting pot, that we are all the same. We do not believe in hyphenated Americans. We are all equal American. America must continue to be the melting pot. A Nation like America cannot be made up of groups. American is made up of individuals. As Woodrow Wilson said, as long as you consider yourself a part of a group, you are still not assimilated into American society, because America, like other nations, is made up of individuals and not made up of groups. 

So today, in this debate, we are discussing this issue from the perspective of over 200 years of American history, of our culture and the things we hold dear. We should look around us in this Chamber today. All of us can take part in this debate. Why? Because we have all adopted English as our language, and this bill will allow us to do that 25, 50, and 100 years from now. Without this bill, we could not do that. 

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.)

Mr. Speaker, as a public servant and educator, and a mother, I think it would be a great disservice to our children to make English the official language of the land, not only because of the domestic and international ramifications that it would have, but more so for the future of our children. It is time that as Americans we understand what educators throughout the world already seem to know, that proficiency in many languages ultimately results in increased understanding of others, awareness of other cultures and traditions, and ultimately improvements in our Nation's prosperity and welfare. ... 

As a Cuban-American who immigrated to this country in 1960, I was granted the honor of living here in the United States, a nation where differences, not similarities are the norm and, most of all, a nation where for over 200 years this plural society has been the standard and where speakers of different tongues and persons of diverse cultures, ethnic backgrounds and walks of life have come with one goal: To live, persevere, and succeed in the United States of America, the land of the free and the melting pot of the world. ... Persons who have immigrated in the past, who do so in the present, and who will continue to do so in the future, already understand that in order for them to be able to do well in this great Nation of liberty and freedom, where equality is the law of the land, they must learn English and no law is needed to stress this. Moreover not only do over 97 percent of Americans speak English, but newcomers to our great Nation are learning English faster than ever, thereby making English as the official language a moot point. ... 

Some would say that we are indeed a diverse nation, that we must provide for a common heritage through the use of the English language. Our heritage, however, is not so much English itself, but instead that regardless of race, color, creed, and our language preference, we have been given the honor of all being Americans. The fact that we are all members of this great Nation and benefit from its Democratic ideals and liberties is a far more cohesive bond than any language could ever be. 

From a more global perspective, it is obvious to all that America today is undoubtedly one of the world's top economic powers. In an everyday more globally interdependent world, where an astonishing four out of five jobs are created through exports, it is necessary that knowledge of other languages be encouraged in order to facilitate our business with the rest of the world and not force others to deal with us strictly in English. Establishing English as our official language would serve to undermine our competitiveness on a global scale. 

As a Florida certified teacher and a former owner of a bilingual private school in south Florida, I know this bill will not facilitate the transition for children who have already come to the United States and do not have enough of a grasp of the language to understand challenging subject matters. ``English only'' legislation would only prove to be a disservice to these children instead of facilitating their learning abilities. 

Bob Livingston (R-La.)

Mr. Speaker, I rise in strong support of H.R. 123, the English Language Empowerment Act of 1996. ... The American people, including new citizens, have long championed the notion of making English our official language. To date, 22 States – including my home State of Louisiana  – have already declared English their official language. It is time to make English the Nation's official language. 

The bill also amends the Voting Rights Act to end Federal mandates for bilingual ballots. This will put an end to the unfunded mandate of requiring States to print ballots in different languages. .. While there are some who believe this is worthy and necessary, the measure is dividing our Nation along ethnic lines. In addition, it is also unduly burdening the States and opening the system to potential fraud. ... I fear bilingual ballots only help those who resolve to steal elections. According to the 1990 Census, California has 4.4 million non-citizens, Florida has 949 thousand non-citizens. Texas has over a million non-citizens, and New York has 1.5 million non-citizens. ... Unfortunately, many of these same individuals also vote. With the ballots printed in their native languages, its easy for crooks to convince these individuals – many of whom are unaccustomed to U.S. election laws – that it is okay for them to vote.

We are an English speaking Nation. Most citizens understand this and, in fact, support this reality. Since 1906, all U.S. citizens are required by law to be able to comprehend English. And, since 1950, all U.S. citizens must demonstrate an understanding of English, including an ability to read, write and speak words in ordinary English usage. However, there are currently 323 languages spoken in the United States – 115 languages alone spoken in the New York City Schools. Forty million Americans will be non-English-language proficient by the year 2000. To keep America one Nation, one people we must have one common language.

William Clay (D-Mo.) 

Mr. Chairman, I agree that learning English should be a priority goal for all persons residing in the United States. In fact, there is extremely high demand for English language classes. Immigrants themselves recognize that in order to better their own lot, and that of their families, learning English is imperative. New arrivals to our shores flood English as a second language classes. In Washington, D.C., 5,000 immigrants were turned away from English classes in the 1994 school year. In New York City, schools have had to resort to a lottery to determine enrollment. In Los Angeles, more than 40,000 applicants remain on waiting lists for English classes. In my view, we should expand Federal support for English as the second language and for bilingual education programs. 

My Republican colleagues characterize this bill as commonsense legislation. But it is neither common sense nor common decency to mandate exclusive use of English while utterly failing to address the practical need for adequate English-language preparation. This bill is not a mere declaration of English as the official language of the United States. It is hopelessly vague, ambiguous, unnecessary, unconstitutional legislation, searching for a solution to a nonproblem. 

With so little time remaining on the legislative calendar, the Republican majority has chosen to engage in an issue so potentially divisive. Instead of empowering people in the use of English by ensuring adequate funds for English as a second language classes, this bill attempts to protect the English language as though it were under some bizarre attack by other languages. ... 

This bill will obstruct such basic Government functions as tax collection, disaster preparation, water and resource conservation, and execution of civil and criminal laws and regulations. What logical public policy could this bill possibly support? 

Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) 

Mr. Chairman, quite frankly, this debate is totally perplexing to me. It makes me wonder, are we speaking here in English to each other or are we talking in foreign tongues? I do not understand it. We are a nation of immigrants. As I look around this Chamber, I see the great melting pot personified by many of the Members in this House, and I am no exception.

Of course my married name is Roukema, and my husband, in fact, is the only member of his family who was not born in Holland. They came here and were assimilated. My family name is Scafati. We were Italian-American immigrants, my grandparents on both sides, and their decision was to come to America and be integrated into society as soon as possible. As a result, my grandparents and my parents learned English ASAP. It was important for them. 

The example of my parents and grandparents was clear, clear to me then and clear to me now. They knew instinctively that English proficiency was absolutely essential to their success, not because they were not proud of their heritage but because they knew mastering the language was important to them and that they should do it as quickly as possible. 

They knew that proficiency would help their family, their neighborhood, and their whole community. Yes, they knew that English proficiency was good for the overall well-being of society and for the tradition, the more than 100 years tradition of the melting pot that united all of us in our hopes and ideals as a nation. I must stress this. Now we must take this definitive step today to avoid that our Nation should be so divided into many ethnic enclaves. I see that as a great threat to our national unity.

This legislation is not meant to penalize or to hold segments of our population back. Mr. Chairman, we are here to encourage people arriving on our shores to be upwardly mobile and achieve economically and socially in this new society. 

Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) 

Mr. Chairman, let us try to answer the why question. Why are we doing this? We are asking that English be the official language of government. I think it is important for the folks listening to understand what we are trying to do and what we are not doing. 

We are trying to make sure that this Government conducts the language of its business in English, because that is the one unifying thing about America, is that that is the formula for success in America, a good work ethic and a command and knowledge of the language. 

We are not asking people to give up their culture, we are not asking people to stop teaching languages, we are not asking people to interact only in English. We are asking the Federal Government to do its business in English. And one of the reasons we are asking for that to be done is there is a growing trend in this country to accommodate 320 different languages in terms of the Federal Government conducting its business. 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. 

We are trying to set policy that is good for the Nation, and the policy we are trying to set is simply this: That the Federal Government is going to conduct its business in the unifying language of America because that is good policy. The formula for success has been and always will be a command and knowledge of the language and a good work ethic, and the policies we should be setting in this country should bring out the best in Americans.

Where do we stop with 320 languages to accommodate? I think it is not unreasonable to ask the Federal Government to conduct its business in the unifying language of this Nation, and to do otherwise is impractical. 

James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) 

I believe it is essential to have English as the official language of our National Government, for the English language is the tie that binds the millions of immigrants who come to America from divergent backgrounds. We should, and do, encourage immigrants to maintain and share their traditions, customs, and religions, but the use of English is essential for immigrants and their children to participate fully in American society and achieve the American dream. 

Importantly, title II of this bill repeals the Federal mandate requiring certain communities to provide bilingual ballots. This directive of the Voting Rights Act is unnecessary and costly. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was originally intended to put a stop to racial barriers to voting in the South, such as literacy tests. English-only ballots are simply not the equivalent, or even comparable, to the racially abused literacy tests of the South.

Applicants for American citizenship, with some limited exceptions, have been required to demonstrate proficiency in English since 1906. Since only citizens may vote, the rationale for mandatory multilingual voting services is perplexing. One of the reasons we require immigrants to learn English before they naturalize is that a person who cannot understand English will not be able to participate in the political community in any but the most limited capacity. Bilingual ballots are not an effective means of increasing full political participation, for they are used by citizens who are obviously not proficient in English, and those who are not proficient in English, in most cases, cannot follow a political campaign, talk with candidates, or petition their representatives.


Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) 

Mr. Chairman, I rise in opposition to this legislation. For over a decade I have chaired the Helsinki Commission. That commission is dedicated to the principles set forth in the Helsinki Final Act that we will treat diversity in all our nations with respect and integrity. The fact of the matter is we passed a resolution on this floor unanimously regarding Kosova in which we urged and asked the Serbians to make sure that in Kosova they would be taught in the language that they knew, not Serbian, that they knew. So that on the one hand we urge nations of the world to be respecters of differences while in our own Nation we retreat from that principle. We ought not to do that. 

The language of America is English. Indeed, my friends, the language of the world is fast becoming English. The tide is not against English or America; the tide is for us. We do not need to act in fear or in chauvinism or in jingoism. Reject this legislation. 


Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) 

Mr. Chairman, I believe it is our values and our ideals that ultimately bind us together as a nation. But it is the English language which serves as the means by which we can communicate these values to those around us. Our common language, English, is that which unites us. 

Eight-six percent of all Americans support establishing English as the official language of the U.S. Government. In fact, in a recent survey, telephone survey, taken in a section of my district in northwest Arkansas, it was found that 97 percent of those polled approved of declaring English as the official language of our Government.

I think the numbers speak for themselves, Mr. Chairman. Nearly half the States in our country have established official English laws, including my home State of Arkansas. In 1987, as a second term legislator in the Arkansas General Assembly, I cosponsored this legislation which we have before us, signed by then-Governor Bill Clinton, now President Clinton, making English the official language of the State of Arkansas. Governor Clinton signed that law. I hope he will sign this bill as well. 

My legislative director's grandparents were immigrants from Norway. They came over on a boat. They learned English. They taught their children English. They assimilated in our culture and they lived the American dream. They still revere their Norwegian heritage. They still cherish that tradition, but they knew that English was part of becoming Americans. 


Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) 

Mr. Chairman, I rise is strong support of H.R. 123, and I commend my colleagues for bringing this legislation forward. This was pushed for many years by our recently departed colleague, Bill Emerson. Bill would be exceedingly proud today to see us moving forward on this legislation. 

Today, 79 nations have an official language. Government documents in France, Germany, Japan, and Austria are printed only in one language. So what happens in those countries that have gone the opposite direction promoting multilingualism? We do not have to look very far to find that. The comment of the chairman of the Royal Commission on Canada's Future about the multilingual policy of Canada stated that it was an anthology of terrors causing Balkanization. Very appropriate, considering the gentleman's comments about what is going on in the former Yugoslavia; ghetto mentalities; the destabilization of Quebec; reverse intolerance by immigrants for Canadian institutions; and the devaluation of the very idea of a common nationality.

Are we heading in that direction in the United States? Consider this: 40 million Americans will be non-English-language proficient by the year 2000;  375 voting districts in 21 States are now required by the Federal Government to provide voting ballots and election materials in foreign languages ... driver's license exams are offered in 31 languages in California. Six languages were on the ballot in the last mayoral election in Los Angeles. 

Opponents have accused this bill of being mean-spirited. Nothing could be further from the truth. We want to raise immigrants up and help them get ahead. This is the way to help. 


Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) 

Mr. Chairman, I rise in strong opposition to this cynical attempt to drive a wedge into our society. ... This bill is another battle in the war against children in this Congress. Eliminating bilingual education could increase dropout rates and hurt the ability of immigrant children to adapt successfully in this country. A quality education is the key to a better way of life. 

People come to this country in search of that better way of life. We can only benefit by providing opportunities for all people to become productive members of our society, especially young children with bright futures ahead of them. Everyone in this Nation wants the same things--security and opportunities for themselves and their children. This legislation is unnecessary, discriminatory, and would deny opportunities to everyone who is perceived to be different.

The majority feels that a national language policy will fix what they deem to be a problem with our common language. Yet, according to the 1990 Census, English is spoken by 97 percent of the U.S. population. ... Waiting lists for ESL classes are overflowing with thousands of people. Language minorities fully understand and appreciate that it is imperative to learn English to succeed in this country and make determined efforts to do so.

Yesterday this House voted to deny benefits and opportunities to legal immigrants. Today we are voting on this legislation to deny access to Government to language minorities. If this legislation passes, we make a mockery of our proud designation as a nation of immigrants. If this legislation passes, the message will ring loud and clear that this House does not value the richness or diversity of life experiences that are woven into the colorful fabric of our Nation. We cannot mandate narrowmindedness and discrimination. That is already in evidence in this country. So is the desire for language minorities to speak English. We don't need to mandate that either. 

If, as its proponents maintain, the purpose of this legislation is to give more language minorities a better chance to learn the English language, let's do something about it by increasing funding for bilingual education and ESL classes. This is nothing but xenophobic political posturing and I urge my colleagues to vote against this distinctly un-American legislation.

Major Owens (D-N.Y.) 

Mr. Chairman, a U.S. Government English Only policy would, at best, be counterproductive, isolationist, and simpleminded; at worst an English Only policy is an elitist, bigoted, and racist policy. ... 

Yes, English is the official language of the country. We do not have to proclaim that. But English Plus is the way we should go if we want to go into the 21st century with the advantage that we need for international trade purposes. This bill originates from the people who brought us GATT and who brought us NAFTA, who emphasized international trade. Why would these same people want to go backward and deemphasize bilingualism? Why not salute the people who speak additional languages? Why not have every American try to become bilingual? Let us go in the opposite direction for purposes of trade, for purposes of commerce, for purposes of international tourism. 

There are a billion Chinese in the world. We certainly should appreciate every Chinese-American; we should see them as an asset to help teach us Chinese. There are Slavic people who are now in the middle class traveling to this country as tourists. We should be learning the Slavic languages and any Slavic-speaking Americans, Russian, Yugoslavian, Hungarian; all of those people should be seen as assets in the country, assets. Let them teach us the language so that we are better able to be able to deal with those people who come over here as tourists to spend their money and to make our economy go. For the sake of the prosperity of the country, for the national security of the country we need bilingual citizens. We need English plus, not English only. 

Patsy Mink (D-Hi.) 

Mr. Chairman, this bill that we are considering is entitled, "This act may be cited as the English Language Empowerment Act." I see nothing in this bill that empowers anybody in terms of becoming better acquainted with English or more proficient. There is not a penny being spent for education to promote English. We look at the education budget and it is being cut. What this bill really is doing is to confine, to restrict the programs and opportunities for people who are not proficient in English from participating in all of the fullness and richness of this society. It really degrades the whole notion of our open society, accessible to everybody legally within its borders. 

The moment we say something cannot be printed in anything else other than English, we are punishing that small sector of our society who are not a threat to our democracy. Less than 5 percent of our people in the census said they were not proficient in English. They are not a threat at all. Yet we are seeking to deny access to the Government by refusing to allow Government agencies from printing documents explaining how to get into programs, how to apply for business loans, how to really make themselves much more a part, an integral part, of this society. 

If we want to empower all these individuals in our community, regardless of what their ethnic origin is or where they came from, it seems to me that we have to find ways in which to embrace them, not to leave them out. Mr. Chairman, this is not empowerment. It is denial. 

Carlos Romero-Barceló (D-P.R.)

Mr. Chairman, I rise against the bill. English is universally acknowledged as the common language of the United States. It is the language of opportunity. It is the language of banking and business, the language of the courts and the primary language of instruction in the schools throughout the Nation. Now, what is the purpose of this bill? We hear the proponents say that there is not any prejudice involved in this proposal, that this is not a mean-spirited bill, that it is going to open opportunities and empower those that cannot speak English. 

I would like to ask, how do we empower someone by requiring that he speak in English when he cannot, by requiring that the documents that are sent by the Federal Government to him must be printed in English even though he cannot understand them? Why can the Government not open doors, as they have been opened until now, to service its citizens as best it can and not be raising barriers of misunderstanding and creating difficulties in the service to the citizens? 

Language is supposed to be used for communication, not to be raised as a barrier, to prejudice, as a barrier to impede other people from achieving their rights and fulfilling their obligations. If one cannot receive proper information about what their obligations are and because they do not understand the language, how can they then be required to fulfill the obligations? This is empowering? It would be like saying that people who cannot read and write, let us then pass a law that in order to vote they have to be able to read and write and that way we are empowering the illiterates in America. Is that a sound argument? Is that sound reasoning? ... 

I presented an amendment in the committee that was voted 18 to 18, so it did not pass, that would amend this bill and allow any government official to communicate with a constituent in English, either orally or in writing, if it was to make the government work more efficiently, and that was not allowed. Not only that, it was not even allowed by the Committee on Rules to be brought to the floor. 

This is the purpose of this law, to prevent public officials from communicating with their constituents in any language other than English in writing. Now, what is the freedom of speech? Is freedom of speech only to speak in English? Can we not speak in another language? Would that be a violation? Would that be against the law? Can that be made against the law? And you are doing it because you are depriving the Federal officials from writing, communicating in writing with a constituent. I think this is absurd, to [deny] the freedom that is most valued in this Nation, the freedom that is most valued throughout the world, the reason why this Nation is most respected and more admired throughout the world. 

William Lipinski (D-Ill.) 

Mr. Chairman, I rise in strong support of this legislation. ... There is nothing radical or racist about declaring English the official language of the United States. By providing a means to communicate across ethnic and racial lines, a common language unites people and eliminates misunderstanding, segregation, distrust, and discord. English is our single shared language. It is the one language that crosses all ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds and allows diverse Americans to share their multicultural backgrounds. 

Declaring English as the official language will provide an incentive for immigrants to learn English. Throughout our history, new Americans were proud to learn to speak, read and write English. They knew that English was the key to assimilating to their new country. English was necessary to take advantage of all the opportunities that America had to offer. 

Yet, today there are more than 32 million Americans who are not proficient in English. In many cities, immigrants can live, work, and play without ever knowing a word of English. The Federal Government caters to these immigrants by providing programs and services in their native tongue, discouraging them from learning English. According to the General Accounting Office, the Federal Government, between 1990 and 1994, printed more than 250 official documents in other languages. Even swearing-in ceremonies for naturalized American citizens have taken place in other languages. 

Making English official will let immigrants know that they have no right to receive public services in any other language. Most Federal Government business – documents, meetings, records, legislation, and ceremonies – will be in English. This is a tremendous incentive for new citizens to learn English so that they may participate fully in American society. 

Thomas Sawyer (D-Ohio) 

English is spoken more broadly throughout the world than any other language. It is composed of elements gathered from the languages of the globe and, for these reasons and others, it is arguably the richest spoken language anywhere on Earth. We should be proud of that richness and encourage it. It appeals to our pride, to our simple patriotism. But in the end it also plays on some of our worst fears. 

There is, unfortunately, abroad in the world a drift toward insularity and, in some corners of North America and Asia and Europe, a rush to isolation, a xenophobia that is grounded in fear and hatred. It harkens to a time some 60 years ago when one of the world's great orators played on simple patriotism among his countrymen to heighten the fears and hatred of a few with appeals that were couched in phrases like one land, one language, one leader. That is dangerous. 

I do not impute that motive to anybody on this floor. But English is the official language of our Nation. Tens of thousands wait in line to elevate their mastery of English. We will be offering an amendment later today that will provide the tools to make language instruction available to all who hunger for it and thereby to take concrete, positive steps to bring about the unity that everyone on this floor argues for today. 

Mr. Chairman, I rise today in strong opposition to H.R. 123 because I do not believe that we need to make English the official language of government. The simple fact is that English already is our unifying national language. And when we recognize that only 0.06 percent of government documents are printed in languages other than English, the lack of any need for this legislation seems clear. 

I agree that learning English should be a priority for all persons residing in the United States. But in an increasingly global economy, literacy in a number of languages is a clear advantage – and, in some cases, a necessity. The more literate an individual is, the better equipped he or she is to adapt to the rapid pace of economic change. ... H.R. 123 purports to encourage the mastery of English. However, it does nothing to provide the necessary resources for adequate English language instruction. Without a strategy for increasing English literacy, the real impact of this bill may be only to discourage literacy in any language and to chill participation in civic life by those who are not proficient in English. That would be truly unfortunate.


Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) 

This legislation is at best misguided; at worst, mean-spirited, and does not reflect the America I know nor the community that I serve. ...

Monday this House unanimously declared that it is the sense of Congress that the government of Serbia should ensure the rights of its Albanian minority to be educated in their native language rather than in Serbian. Far more native born Americans of Mexican ancestry live in the former Mexican provinces of Texas and California than the 2 million Albanians which this Congress expressed their concern that they would be able to be educated in their native language. With this bill, we are saying that what is fair and just for the minority people of Serbia is just too good for the non-Engish-speaking minorities of the United States. 

The proponents of this English only legislation, Mr. Chairman, ought to acknowledge that we either believe that people have a right to be educated in their native language or we do not, either we provide English instruction to non-English speakers or we do not. Let us drop the hypocrisy, the doublespeak and acknowledge in plain English that at best this bill makes the business of government harder. At worst, it panders to prejudice. 

George Gekas (R-Pa.) 

It is precisely because my parents, Greek immigrants, could not speak English when they first came to these shores that I support the legislation in front of us. They would leave no stone unturned to try to learn English on their own and could not wait for the day that they could become naturalized citizens and to be proficient in the English language sufficiently enough to merit the granting of the citizenship which they so prized for the remainder of their lives. ... I am enriched by what they did while they did everything in their hearts and minds they could to learn English. ... 

An old friend, Louis Vasquez, and his friend William Lopez and another friend of Spanish descent, and I formed the Spanish-American Society in my district, and they were happy to put together an organization whose sole function would be, not sole function, but one of the functions would be to teach their fellow Latinos the English language. When the charter came from the government of Pennsylvania granting them the official status of the Spanish-American Society which I provided for them as a new lawyer in town, they did not ask that that charter be in Spanish. They were proud that I read it in English. ... They did not demand or require or even beg or request in any way that that charter also had with it a translation hanging next to it. 

Gene Green (D-Tex.) 

I rise in opposition to the bill, but I support English as our common language. According to the findings in this bill, English is a common thread that binds individuals from different backgrounds; in short, that English is what makes us Americans. 

We have more in common than our language, and, Lord knows, we all speak English in a different way. Americans share a common set of values, those of democracy, freedom, and opportunity, and that can be said in English as well as lots of other languages. Our fellow Americans who are not fluent in English are no less patriotic than my colleagues or me. In fact in some cases, particularly Hispanic heritage, we can go and talk about individuals who have literally laid down their lives for our country. 

Contrary to what the sponsors of the bill claim, English is not being threatened. If one files a document in court, the public records are in English. If they get a charter from Pennsylvania, like my colleague said, it is in English. English is the language that is used today in Congress and all our official activities of our Government. Then why are we debating this bill? Only to divide us as Americans. 

We are not divided because of our language, Mr. Chairman. We are divided today because of those of us who may not speak English as our first language. My ancestors did not speak English as a first language, they spoke German. But they also learned English, but we also lament that in our ancestry we lost the ability to speak German.... 

Anyone coming to America, they are going to learn English. But I do not want them to say, "Don't learn your heritage," and that is what this bill is saying. This bill is trying to divide us, Mr. Chairman, based on language, and we do not need to be divided any more in this country.

Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) 

Mr. Chairman, I rise in opposition to this misleading English Only bill. Everyone knows English is indeed our official language. According to the 1990 census, 97 percent of all people in this country speak English well. Immigrants do not resist learning English. Most immigrants are proud to learn English and proud to speak English. This bill is but another divisive, mean-spirited initiative that does nothing to improve the ability of all of us in this diverse society to live and work together. 

How dare any law deny an elected official the right to communicate with their constituents in any language other than English? How can a country that reaches out to cities in other countries all over the world in the great sister city movement of this country look its sister cities from countries like Mexico, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Russia, and Africa, and many more, and say, "We love you like a sister, we respect your culture, we appreciate your diversity, and we invite you to come to the United States." And yet say to them, "But when you come to America, don't bring your language with you." 

Forty-three percent of my constituents are Latino. We respond to all of our constituents. We respond to them however we need to respond to them, orally or in writing, and we do it in Spanish. We do that, and guess what? I do not intend to ever stop doing that. I do not care what law is passed.

The supporters of this bill claim to want everyone to learn to speak English. Yet they support the defunding of bilingual education while millions of immigrants are on waiting lists to learn [English]. This bill deserves to be defeated in every language. 

John Edward Porter (R-Ill.)

Mr. Chairman, we are a diverse nation. We should celebrate and be proud of our diversity. But to be a nation we must have one common language with which we can communicate with one another. That common language is American English. 

Immigrants have come to our shores for over 200 years, and each group has learned the central language, and has integrated themselves into our society. As our Nation has grown by their numbers, it has been enriched by each of them. In order to have economic and social mobility in this country, we know that we must speak and write the central language. To the extent that we encourage people who enter our society not to learn American English, we consign them basically to a life without that opportunity.

Mr. Chairman, in 1975 through misguided sensibilities, we mandated in certain circumstances ballots that would have to be printed in a language other than American English. A nation must conduct its public discourse in a central language, and through history our central language happens to be American English. It could have been American Spanish or American French. 

The most basic public function that we have in this country is the conduct of our elections. To be eligible to vote in our elections, one must be a citizen. In order to be a citizen one must be able to speak and write American English, our central language. We can speak, read, or use any other language we wish; but when we conduct our official business, we ought to and must conduct it in that central language. 

This bill repeals the Federal mandate for ballots in languages other than American English. This may not be good politics, but it is good policy. While we can encourage the diversity that makes us strong, we must come together under one language and speak that language so that we can communicate with one another. And that one language that each citizen is required to know in order to vote must be the only language of our public discourse and our most basic public act, voting. 

Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.) 

Mr. Chairman, I rise in opposition to this unconstitutional bill being proposed by the previous speaker, the chairman of the Human Rights Caucus. ... I believe that this bill is about denying and restricting freedom of speech as well as the right to vote. This bill violates the First Amendment and the spirit of the Voting Rights Act which was written to overcome discrimination.

In this body, we vote to protect free speech for just about everyone and everything: It's OK to have pornography on the Internet; it's not OK for colleges to censor student newspapers; it's OK for newspapers to lie about us. We guarantee rappers the right to free speech, but we do not want to guarantee the right to free speech in another language. 

Mr. Chairman, one-half of the world's population is Asian. One-fourth of the world is Chinese. One-fourth is African, and one-eighth is Nigerian. Americans make up only 4 percent to 6 percent of the world's population. Until today, Congress has acted to expand trade with our neighbors to the south, east, north, and west. Now, we are turning our backs on 96 percent of the world; most of which is nonwhite, nonchristian, didn't have anything to do with the Mayflower, and has no paranoia about the English language losing its place in the world. ... 

Today, unless this bill is defeated, we will be denying people the opportunity to understand the ballots before them. It causes me no little confusion, Mr. Chairman, that the sponsor of the bill repealing bilingual ballots is the chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. I ask this body that when we look at countries around the world which have persecuted their minorities, when we tell the Serbs to respect the rights of ethnic Albanians, how foolish is it that we are attempting to pass legislation such as this?

Mr. Chairman, every Member of this body should stand for liberty, equal protection, and free speech. I urge my colleagues to oppose this bill. This bill will represent the first time that Congress has narrowed the Voting Rights Act. 

Pat Williams (D-Mont.) 

This bill has an important, I think, both political and policy question. I do not want to diminish those importances, but I do think the bill is disingenuous despite its importance. I do not accuse any of my colleagues of that, but I think the bringing of the bill to the floor at this time is, as the American people understand it, motherhood, apple pie, the flag; those are great election year issues. I have been here 18 years, and some Members of Congress bring those issues to the floor just before election. I think that is why this newest motherhood type issue, the traditional wonderful English language, is now being brought to the floor in this form.

Of course, a common language encourages unity. People on both sides of the aisle agree with that. There is no argument about that. Of course, a common language promotes efficiency in our vital system, private system and economy. There is no debate about that. Of course, immigrants should learn to speak the English language. That is why 97 percent of the people in this country can speak English or are on a waiting list learning to speak English. 

So what does this bill achieve? The listening public needs to understand that this bill does not affect spoken language whatsoever. If you do not speak English, that is fine. With English as the official language, we do not stop you from speaking any other language in this country, because even an arrogant Congressman would understand you cannot stop people on the street or in their homes from speaking the languages they will. 

What does the bill do? It says the Federal Government may only print its official documents and information in English; that is, most of it in English. It even has some exceptions to that. Then what does it achieve? After all, only 0.06 percent of documents and information are now printed in other than English. So what does it achieve? Motherhood, apple pie, and English. 


Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) 

Mr. Chairman, I rise today in strong opposition to this legislation. The Republican leadership wants to use this offensive measure as its latest wedge issue to divide the American people. English is the official language of this Nation. Newcomers to our great country struggle day in and day out to learn our language and to become full members of our society. 

I want to share with the Members something about the personal struggle of an immigrant, my father, who knew something about this issue. Ted DeLauro, an Italian immigrant, came to this great nation from Italy at the age of 13. He came eagerly, in pursuant of the American dream, a good education, and economic prosperity. Tragically, my father had to give up part of that dream, an opportunity for an education. He left school in the 7th grade simply because he could not speak English. In class he confused the word "janitor" with the Italian word "genitori," which means family. He defined the word "janitor" as meaning parents. His teachers and his fellow students ridiculed him and made him feel alone. He was so humiliated that he never went back to school. That event touched him, it touched my family deeply, and it changed our lives. ... 

If we are truly interested in codifying the importance of English, we should increase resources for bilingual education in our schools, reach out to residence who are struggling to learn the language. Ironically, this majority leadership, that claims to want to enshrine English as the language of all our residents, has cut bilingual education for thousands of students trying, like my father did, to fit in and to contribute to American life. It is shameful. My father's story should never be repeated. Children should never have to quit school because they cannot understand the language. This people's House should reject this attempt to divide our country. Vote against this bill. 

Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) 

Mr. Chairman, today there are 40 million Americans with no health insurance. There are millions of Americans who will go to bed tonight with a knot in their stomach about whether they get a layoff notice tomorrow at their jobs. There are rivers that need to be cleaned, highways that need to be built, seniors who need health care in their homes, and what are we doing this afternoon? We are passing a law that says it is illegal for the Federal Government to print a document in a language other than English. If I have ever seen a solution in search of a problem, this is it. 

I know, Mr. Chairman, what this is really about. It is about millions of Americans who are sick to their stomach and worried to death that they are going to lose what they have worked for their whole life. What is the solution? It is to beat up on and demonize people who do not look like we do or talk like we do. Mr. Chairman, if we want to do something to address the real problems of those very real people, then give paid leave to people so they can leave work and take care of their children, stop corporations from raiding the pension funds of their employees, provide health benefits for every working American in this country, fund bilingual education, so people can read and write the English language, and put our constituents back to work. 

This is a shameless and shameful attempt to take the real anxieties of real people and direct them at people who are not like some of the rest of us. We are better than this bill. We should have aspirations better than this. Should, God forbid, it become law, I urge my colleagues from the Republican and Democratic party, from urban, rural, and suburban districts, be better than what is behind this bill. Vote no, and let us get to work on the real problems of the American people. 


Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) 

Mr. Chairman, the last speaker said that we intend to beat up, demoralize. My colleagues on the other side, we have gone through this legislation, and I have sat down with them. They know there is no intent or nothing in this bill that would do that. This is an honest attempt to combine and empower the American people, and especially those that have limited English skills to help them. 

Mr. Bill Emerson, the late Bill Emerson, has 200 cosponsors on this bill, 200 cosponsors. They are not mean. They are not after anybody's hide. But they believe that we can help the American people. Bill Emerson did not have a mean bone in his body. I would say that instead of divide, in one of the hearings a gentlelady from India said that when the British were there, that there were over 300 and some languages in India and more than that in the dialects, and they actually adopted a foreign language, English, as their common language when the British were there, and it tied that country together. When the British pulled out, and even today, those different groups are segregated and India is gridlocked because they do not have a common language. 

My wife teaches Spanish. Both my daughters are fluent in Spanish. I want to send them, if I can afford it, to Spain or Mexico City. I want them to immerse, because I do believe that the future of this country involves trade, it involves that we learn a lot of different languages. The gentleman said that we cut the program for education. No, what we cut is the Federal Government. We send the block grants down to the States and allow actually more money, and take away the Federal rules and regulations from the education process. Governors have told us they can do a better job. 

I look across the Nation, and there are 320 languages in this country and a thousand dialects. We encourage those folks to learn, and I want Spanish-speaking or Chinese-speaking, I want them to speak those languages at home. This bill does not prohibit that. What the bill does, it says that the official language of the government, of the Federal Government, shall be in English. That empowers people, just like the example that I used that for our swearing-ins. 

The bill says that when a person is sworn in as a citizen to this country, to the United States of America, that that be done in English. To me that is a powerful, that is a very powerful symbol. That is not mean-spirited. That means to empower those individuals. 

In my own district, many people do not speak English. They are not empowered. ... I can walk precincts and go in entire blocks where no one in that house except maybe the child that is going to school speaks English. No one. What help does that child have when they go home on geometry or chemistry? None. It is because the Government has subsidized and sent information, and there is no intent to ever learn English. Some of the people there have been there since 1986 when we [offered amnesty] for illegals coming in. Some of those same individuals have never even left that block. You talk about imprisonment. All we are doing is saying that we want the Government to operate in the official language. ... 

Mr. Chairman, it is not an English Only bill. It is an official language of the Government bill. If it were an English Only bill, it would apply not only to government but to private businesses, to churches, to neighborhoods and homes, and the bill does not do that. ... We encourage diversity and we encourage other languages, as in my own children. H.R. 123 does not apply to homes and churches, and neighborhoods, and communities, to public health, and safety, national security, international relations, the teaching of languages, the census, certain civil lawsuits, rights of crime victims or criminal defendants, or oral communication by the Federal Government. ... I ask support for this bill. 

Nydia Velásquez (D-N.Y.) 

Mr. Chairman, I rise today, amazed by how far some will go to unravel our country. H.R. 123 should be called the Linguistic and Voting Deprivation Act, not the English Language Empowerment Act. Instead of providing language minorities with the opportunities to learn English, this legislation will cost our Nation one of our most valuable resources – our diversity. I urge all of you to support English Plus. 

Earlier in the year this House took opportunities away from our limited-English children by cutting funding for bilingual education. Today with the passage of this legislation, we are making the chance for a better life nearly impossible. As a Representative with one of the highest immigrant and language minority populations in the country, I know the difficulties that language minorities face day in and day out. H.R. 123 will have the effect of further isolating my constituents who speak primarily Chinese or Spanish. To make matters worse, without bilingual ballots, these constituents will be completely unempowered. 

As elected officials, our job is to make democracy work by reaching out and serving all our constituents--not just those who speak English only. Language minorities are some of our society's most vulnerable members. They are especially in need of assurance that their civil liberties will be protected. My colleagues, H.R. 123 will not bring us together, it will only serve to divide this country. Vote "yes" for English Plus.

Peter Torkildsen (R-Mass.) 

Mr. Chairman, I rise today in strong support of English as the Official Language of Government Act of 1996. The English language is one of America's great equalizers. Studies show that immigrants who learn English are better able to build a life for themselves and their families. They typically enjoy greater successes in both their professional and personal lives. In fact, when my grandfather came to America from Norway at the age of 16, he learned English because it was the best way for him and his family to live the American dream. 

Diversity is one of our Nation's greatest strengths. The unique cultures, customs, and beliefs that every immigrant brings to our country add to the richness of America. However, without a common thread to bind our society together, America risks losing its sense of unity. ... We have seen in Canada what can happen when there is no common language. We cannot allow the United States to become balkanized with ethnic tensions that will only divide our country. 

No matter what part of the world we or our ancestors come from, we all came to America for the same reason. We are here in search of the freedoms and opportunities that make our country great. We are here in search of a better life for themselves and their families. In short, we are here because we want to be Americans. The English language is part of the fabric that keeps us together.


Henry Bonilla (R-Tex.) 

Mr. Chairman, I rise in opposition to this bill. The fact is, English is America's language in fact; we don't need legislation to make a fact law. No one understands the importance of mastering English more than I do. Growing up in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood in south San Antonio, I was lucky enough to have parents who stressed the importance of being fluent in English. My parents understood that English was essential to get work and succeed. My parents' example clearly demonstrated that learning English was essential to first succeed in school, and later in our jobs.

We don't need another Washington mandate, another law with bureaucrats to enforce it to tell us what we all know to be true fact. English is the common language of all Americans, passing or rejecting this legislation will not change this fact. I think it important to get beyond the impassioned rhetoric of this debate and address the facts of this bill, what this bill does and does not do. 

This bill basically does two things. One, it restricts the use of other languages by the Federal Government with so many exceptions that it is unclear what in fact would change. At this time less than one percent of Federal documents are printed in other languages. Two, it ends the Federal requirement for bilingual ballots. This will have no impact on Texas as our State's electoral code provides for these ballots. 

Now let's cover what this bill does not do. It does not promote usage of English. It will not affect commercial and personal communications. It will not increase English usage. It will not serve to bring us together. While I understand that many of my colleagues have good intentions in supporting this bill, millions of Americans do not see this as a well-meaning affirmation of national unity, but rather as a challenge to their Americanism. Until we eliminate this mistrust we should concentrate on promoting English usage rather than passing legislation. 

English is America's common language. We do not need a law to prove this. Instead of making symbolic gestures to legislate language, we should take real concrete action to encourage every American to learn English.

Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tex.) 

Legislation which would establish English as a national language runs counter to our Nation's history and would create a new and unprecedented role for the Federal Government. The Founders of this country recognized the danger of restricting its citizens' freedom of expression. Language, like religion, is an intensely personal form of self-expression which must not be subject to governmental regulation. 

Language minorities do not need to be coerced by the Federal Government to learn English: they already are. According to the census, over 95 percent of Americans speak English. And current generations of language minorities are learning English faster than previous generations. In Los Angeles, demand for English classes is so great that some schools are open 24 hours a day, and thousands are placed on waiting lists. 

What the sponsors of this and other English only legislation do not seem to understand is that diversity in people and languages is not a national threat, but an advantage. In today's information age, we have the ability to connect with individuals across the globe. The movement of people across countries and continents has intensified. Our businesses, too, have increasingly moved into the broader world marketplace where the most influential language is that of the customer. Therefore, the 32 million Americans who speak languages in addition to English are at a competitive advantage. 

This legislation also repeals section 203 of the Voting Rights Act establishing bilingual ballots, which would have a devastating impact on the rights of language minorities to participate fully in the democratic process. The right to vote is one of our most cherished and fundamental rights. ... In 1975, Congress enacted language assistance provisions to the Voting Rights Act, recognizing that large numbers of U.S. citizens who primarily spoke languages other than English had been effectively excluded from participation in our electoral process. Congressional hearings brought forth evidence that these citizens were denied equal opportunities by State and local governments, resulting in disabilities and continuing illiteracy in the English language. 

Repealing these provisions--as Title II of this legislation would do--and denying American citizens access to bilingual ballots for Federal elections would effectively disenfranchise a large population of U.S. citizens. In fact, as the number of bilingual U.S. citizens continues to grow the need for bilingual ballots is even greater. Many of these citizens have only recently had the opportunity to engage meaningfully in participatory democracy. Bilingual ballots not only increase the number of registered voters, but permit voters to participate on an informed basis. They not only allow voters who need language assistance to be able to read to know who is running for office, but also to understand more complex voting issues such as constitutional amendments. 

Language assistance is not costly. In depth studies show that the cost was either nominal or caused no additional costs. A GAO report indicates that of the 295 responding jurisdictions, the average cost of providing written assistance was 7.6 percent of the total election expenditures, and an estimated 18 States incurred no additional costs in providing assistance. Oral language assistance is even less burdensome, with costs ranging from 2.9 percent to no additional cost. 

Mr. Speaker, our Nation has remained strong and united because, while we do not always agree, we share a common set of democratic ideals and values. Commitment to freedom, equality, tolerance and opportunity – not language – is what holds us together. I hope that my colleagues will resist this attempt to divide our citizenry and oppose this bill. 

Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) 

I bring to this debate a unique perspective in that I represent a district where the languages of every day transaction are English and Samoan. Bilingualism is a strength in my constituency and I cannot support legislation that does not adequately recognize this.... 

I would like to note that moves afoot in this Congress to declare English as the official language of the United States have attracted the attention of the international community. I refer particularly to a resolution passed by the fourth Polynesian language forum, held in New Zealand in August last year which was supported by government representatives of 13 governments of Polynesia including New Zealand, Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Easter island, Western Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga. The resolution specifically stated its incredulity that the United States, otherwise a world leader in the field of human rights, should even consider legislation such as this. The resolution also reminds us that the international community recognizes the rights of indigenous people to have their languages used officially in government. 

In addition to the points I have made above in relation to the effect of this legislation on all minority groups in the U.S., this Congress would be wise to reflect upon its obligations to protect the languages and cultures of Native American peoples. We should not forget that the international community is watching, and judging us by our actions. 


Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) 

Mr. Chairman, the immigrant experience is central to our national character. ... For nearly four centuries, natives of other lands have come to America to build a better future. But unlike their predecessors, today's immigrants are met with Government policies allegedly concerned with the preservation of their ethnic separateness. 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. Whatever its putative intentions, a policy of governmental insistence on a multitude of official languages works insidiously to harm the very people it was meant to help.

The use of English is indispensable to immigrants and their children who wish to participate fully in American society and realize the American Dream. As we seek to promote the rich and varied traditions new Americans bring, we must simultaneously work to ensure that all of us share some basis for common understanding. Securing both these important goals requires overcoming the divisive influence of linguistic separatism. English should be and remain the official language of our National Government....

Many people do not realize that, while English is our common language, government at all levels is actively undermining its unifying function. All of the benefits our Nation reaps from our linguistic harmony will be lost if ill-advised government policies continue to forment linguistic separatism. Today, American taxes are being spent so that people who cannot understand or communicate in English can nonetheless receive ballots to vote in Filipino, Vietnamese, or Chinese. Federal Government job announcements frequently invite applications from people with limited English skills. Immigrants have even been sworn in as new citizens at a U.S. Government ceremony conducted almost entirely in Spanish. And bilingual education, which purports to aim at bringing students into full participation in our society, has instead condemned them to what the New York Times calls a "bilingual prison."

Under these doctrinaire and disruptive bilingual policies, in too many U.S. schools children who wish to learn English are given only a few minutes of English instruction each day. Ignoring the time-tested wisdom that practice makes perfect, children are taught all day long in the foreign language they already speak, rather than in English. And children who should be moved quickly into mainstream classes are kept in language separation for seven or more years. ... 

As we continue to welcome new Americans to our shores, we must ensure that misguided national policies do not undermine the important role of a common language of national understanding. English as the official language of our Government encourages its use by all Americans, so as to secure brighter opportunities and a better future for us all. 

Bruce Vento (D-Minn.) 

Mr. Chairman, I rise today to oppose this legislation... While restricting the ability of the U.S. Government to adequately communicate with certain Americans, this bill ironically does nothing to provide opportunities to those with limited English proficiency in order to help them learn our language. In fact, the fiscal year 1997 Labor, Health and Human Services, Education appropriations bill recently passed by the House cuts bilingual and immigrant education programs by 11 percent. This funding reduction, if taken together with this bill, would pull the rug out from under the majority of immigrants who are diligently attempting to learn English and further aggravate and polarize existing language barriers in this country.

The main public school system in my district, St. Paul Public Schools, is already struggling to provide this English language instruction to its limited English proficiency [LEP] students, the majority of who are Southeast Asian. The school district has over 6,500 LEP students and only 150 LEP teachers. This limits the number LEP instruction hours per student and increases student-teacher ratios to 60 to 1 in most classrooms. These budget strains will only become greater in the future as the student population with limited English proficiency grows, and it is, by any measure, the fastest growing population of students in the St. Paul Public School System. Clearly, more resources are needed in these areas and in educating adults who are new arrivals to the United States. This opportunity must be presented to these citizens, not the punitive denial of access to their Federal Government. ... 

What is this Congress afraid of? Have the people's representatives no confidence in our culture, institutions, or customs that we must set in law in essence a punishment for fellow citizens who need help in other languages such as Spanish or Hmong? This would simply alienate new citizens from their government, and segregation and isolation is surely not the goal we seek. Quite the contrary we seek tolerance and cooperation. Rather, we should integrate and honor our differences and recognize a person's need and right to be assured that their basic rights are protected. We will do more harm than good by imposing requirements that disenfranchise the rights of citizens under the banner of a common English language. 


John Conyers (D-Mich.) 

The core of the issue concerning minority language provisions of the Voting Rights Act is the constitutional and civil rights of American citizens – both native born as well as naturalized – whose first language is not English. The minority language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act have been signed into law and supported by President Ford, Reagan and Bush, as well as Presidents Clinton and Carter. During their most recent reauthorization in 1992, Senator Hatch said that the provisions are an "integral part of our government's assurance that Americans do have . . . access" to the ballot box. 

Since the minority language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act was first adopted, they have provided a catalyst for increase voter participation in language minority populations. From 1980 to 1990, Latino voter population increased by five times the rate of the rest of the Nation, and the number of Latinos registered to vote increased by approximately 500,000 between 1990-92. Participation statistics for Native Americans also indicate an increase in turnout as a result of minority language voting assistance. Recent studies confirm that nearly three-fourths of Spanish-speaking American citizens would be less likely to vote if minority language assistance were not available. 

The evidence further reveals that the minority language provisions of the Voting Rights Act are a targeted, low cost method of ensuring the constitutional right to vote. According to the Government Accounting Office, the average cost of providing written assistance is minuscule, costing an average of 2.9 percent of election expenses or less. Seventy-nine percent of the jurisdictions responding to this study reported no costs in providing bilingual oral assistance. Denying citizens minority language assistance with regard to voting will not force or encourage them to learn English As the late Hamilton Fish, Jr., then ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee so eloquently state in 1992, "by enabling language minority citizens to vote in an effective and informed manner, we are giving them a stake in our society, and this assistance ... will lead to more, not less, integration and inclusion of these citizens in our mainstream." 

The most recent reauthorization of the minority language provisions were approved by overwhelming bipartisan margins of 237-125 in the House, and 75-20 in the Senate. Yet, only 4 years later, this bill would repeal these provisions without evidence that the discrimination has ended. I urge opposition to this measure. 


Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) 

Mr. Chairman, despite the red hot rhetoric of those who are trying to score cheap political points, the truth is this. Diversity does not divide our Nation. Bilingualism does not burden our bureaucracy. Using Spanish or Polish or German to contact a constituent, collect taxes or cast a ballot does not lead to confusion. It enhances communication. It adds color and clarity and dignity to our ideas. That brings us closer together. 

English Only laws disenfranchise Americans who pay taxes, play by the rules and send their children off to war. Speaker Newt Gingrich often says that words have power. Therefore, by the Speaker's own logic, if you deny specific groups of Americans the ability to use words that are part of their culture, you strip them of their power. Poll taxes and literacy taxes which once stripped African-Americans of their God-given rights have now been reborn, renamed and retargeted to strike at other minority groups. English Only is the Jim Crow of the 1990's. Americans of all backgrounds are its victim. Latinos are certainly its primary targets but English Only is also a threat to Polish and Italian Americans, to Chinese and Ukrainian Americans. 

In fact, Mr. Chairman, English Only is a threat to America itself. It represents a rejection of America's past. There was a time when immigrants were once called upon to create a culture, not just to conform to it. English Only strips America of its future as well. After all, what awaits us if we deny certain voters a role in their government, if we deny certain students the chance to learn? We deny them the chance to pursue their potential and contribute to America. We deny America of its hope. Mr. Chairman, the United States did not achieve greatness because we all speak with one voice. Our country is great because we can, if we wish, speak with many voices.


Thomas Foglietta (D-Pa.)

Mr. Chairman, some of my colleagues, including my friend the gentleman from New York, José – I am sorry, should it be Joseph? – Serrano, may be surprised to hear this, but I rise to say that I think that H.R. 123 might be a good bill. I would like to propose maybe that we should have a few other amendments to make this bill even better than it is. 

  • I propose that the bill be amended to require that all of our embassies use English as their only language, an amendment also requiring our embassies here in Washington to speak only English. 
  • I propose that we have an amendment barring any Federal money to be paid to interpreters in this Nation. 
  • I propose that we have an amendment requiring that we remove the words "E pluribus unum" off our dollar bills. 
  • I propose that we amend our rules so that when we adjourn we do not say "sine die," or is that "sina dei"? 
  • I propose an amendment that we forbid U.S. companies from doing business in countries where they do not speak English. 
  • I propose an amendment barring the President and Members of Congress from visiting nations where English is not the official language. 
  • And since we are legislating an official language, how about an official religion to go along with it? Come to think of it, why do we not just get rid of the First Amendment altogether? 

  • Mr. Chairman, without these amendments, I urge my colleagues to vote against this bill until we get it just right. We all know that this bill is just as ridiculous as the amendments I just proposed. I urge my colleagues to vote against it and let us get on with the work that our constituents sent us here to do. 


    Jan Meyers (R-Kans.) 

    Mr. Chairman, I rise in strong support of H.R. 123 and in opposition to this substitute. Every immigrant who has come to this country has known that English is the language we speak here. ... Since the Census Bureau reports that 47 percent of the foreign born population do not speak English well or at all, it seems that this fact needs to be reinforced. 

    Now, if any of us wanted to move to France or Japan, we would look awfully silly complaining about having to learn their local language. Why is it somehow a horrible violation of human rights to insist that people living here, and especially people who move here deliberately from elsewhere, learn our language? Federal statutes require right now that every applicant for naturalization must demonstrate an understanding of the English language, including an ability to read, write and speak words in ordinary usage in the English language. Now, that is tremendously important. Why are we even debating this? It is in the statute right now. There are special exemptions for those physically unable to do so or those over 50 years of age who have resided in this country for 20 years or more. 

    We are threatening no one by declaring that the official language of this nation of immigrants is English. With so many cultures and so many traditions, none of which do we seek to suppress or denigrate, we need to coalesce around common values. Language is one of these, and so today I hope that we pass this bill making English the official language of this Government. 


    Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) 

    Mr. Chairman, if this bill passes, I would be unable to effectively communicate with 60 percent of my constituents. Hispanic Americans make up 40 percent in my district; Native Americans, the first Americans, 20 percent. ... 

    This is against our traditions and this is bad business. Forty percent of all commercial decisions in the United States are done in another language. Tourism is critically important. Just think of the spirit of the Olympics right now in Atlanta. We are telling the billions watching the Olympics that English is the only language and the rest of the languages are not important. The most important business in the Olympics is translation service. That is not the message that we want to send to the rest of the world....

    If we start telling people the language they should speak, we are entering a very dangerous path that could lead to us dictating to Americans the religious and political beliefs they should practice. This will only spark resentment and increase discrimination among ethnic groups causing a tremendous social distress. 

    English Only is unconstitutional and makes government inefficient and ineffective: The Arizona English Only initiative has been found to be unconstitutional by the Ninth Circuit Court in Yniguez v. Arizonans for Official English. According to the Courts, it violates the First Amendment right to free speech. The 9th Circuit Court found that employees' knowledge of diverse languages made government more efficient and less costly. The Arizona law and legislation pending in Congress would outlaw communication between elected officials and their constituents in any language but English. 

    English Only restricts access to services and government: Millions of tax-paying citizens and residents would be unable to access and communicate with their government. That would include residents of Puerto Rico, Native American reservations and U.S. territories in the Pacific, whose right to communicate in a native language is protected by treaty or custom. ...

    It is not the English language that unites us, but rather our democratic system based on our rights established by the Constitution of the United States. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, `"We are a nation of many nationalities, many races, many religions--bound together by a single unity, the unity of freedom and equality." 


    Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) 

    Mr. Chairman, "From many, one." It does not say, From many, more." It says that we may have diversity, but we have to have a common ground, a common language, that meeting place. Now anyone who feels that that is some kind of antiquated idea, all we have to do is go look to our friends to the north and look at the strife in Canada caused by people who are divided based on the languages they use because they do not have the common bond that we have practiced for so long in America and which has created the cherished experience we call the American way of life.

    Mr. Chairman, I just wonder why people hide behind a term like "multiculturalism" when they do not want to admit what it really means. I live on the Mexican border. I live in an environment where I see people speak different languages. But I also see what happens to people when they do not have that common language of English to be able to move them up. Mr. Chairman, I see those that are deprived of equal access to economic opportunity and those who would do that for political gain. 

    Mr. Chairman, the only way I can find any justifications for this is that there are people out there who want to divide us, who want to separate us for whatever reasons. Maybe it is easier to manipulate them politically, maybe it is easier to isolate them for economic reasons. But I think that we have got to recognize that all we are saying here today is: Let us not divide us. Let us not make more from many. Let us remember that we need that common ground, that one where we all can meet. 


    Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) 

    This bill plays directly to the politics of fear and prejudice for which this Congress has become so well-known. A politics of divide and conquer. Mr. Chairman, this is reminiscent of the Patrick Buchanan campaign to define which people are more American than the others. Or should I say which people are more white, are more white than other Americans? 

    This is playing politics that the Republican Party knows very well: Create an enemy to solve all our country's anxieties and fears. We saw it begin with the gay bashing. Then the last 2 days we have seen it with the welfare bashing and the immigrant bashing when they knocked off all the legal residents who were taxpaying residents of my State who can go and fight in our wars and yet they are going to be denied the rights of their citizenship based upon the bill my Republican colleagues passed yesterday.

    If they do not like the way they look, if they do not like the way they sound, then they are not Americans. All I have to say to my colleagues is they should be careful with all these hot button issues that they are pushing because no one should wonder when the churches start burning in the South and the race riots start breaking out in Los Angeles where all these hot button issues have led us to, and that is fanning the flames of intolerance that this country cannot afford at this time. 

    Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) 

    Mr. Chairman, I yield myself 30 seconds to ask the gentleman from Rhode Island a question. Has he ever volunteered for service? Has he ever volunteered to go fight those wars himself? I thought not. 


    The House will be in order. The gentleman from Rhode Island is not under recognition. No Member has been recognized. 

    Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) 

    Mr. Chairman, I am troubled by the comments by my friend from California, Mr. Cunningham, about the integrity and commitment of the gentleman from Rhode Island, Mr. Kennedy. I do not think anyone could question the commitment either of the gentleman or his family to this country. I would simply say that I think we have to watch our words. I served, and I served with many Hispanics who did not speak English. Some of them never came back from the Vietnam war and died while speaking only Spanish. I think that the gentleman does a disservice when he questions Mr. Kennedy. 


    Ernest Jim Istook (R-Okla.)

    Frequently, I am asked what kind of name is "Istook"? People say, "Is it Indian? Is it Eskimo?" No, it is Hungarian. I am proud of my Hungarian ancestry. My father's parents came to the United States during the first quarter of this century. They Americanized the name. Originally Istook had one "o." When they became U.S. citizens they marked the occasion, they marked the change by adding the second "o" as it has now. They came through Ellis Island. They are a part of the immigration saga of America. And when they became U.S. citizens, they received their certificate of naturalization, which my father had framed and now displays proudly in his home. My father grew up speaking two languages: Hungarian at home, but every place else, English. How glad I am that his parents, my grandparents, did not isolate my father by denying him the training and encouragement to focus upon English rather than focusing upon Hungarian, even though he spoke that at home. 

    Like so many people, I am proud of my ancestry. The part of Hungary where we came from is the Transylvania region. A lot of people do not realize it is a real place. Transylvania now is part of Romania. I get a kick out of telling people that I am literally by blood half Transylvanian. It is fun. There are lots of great things about our heritage, fun and serious.

    But the important thing is, I am not hyphenated American. None of us really are. We are all American. If we believe that we are Americans, if we believe that what binds us together is what we have in common, then it must include the common language, and that common tongue is English.


    Pete King (R-N.Y.) 

    Mr. Chairman, for the first 180 years of our Nation, we were bound together by a common language. Immigrants came to this country knowing they had to learn English. They knew that they had to learn English to become part of the American mainstream. They maintained their own culture, their own identity, their own religion, their own ethnic values, their own beliefs, but they were bound together by that common language. That was the glue that created the great American stained glass window of many cultures with one language.

    Twenty-five years ago we went away from this. Prior to that, I had grown up in New York City, as did Mr. Serrano. I saw the various ethnic groups come and become absorbed and learn English, become part of the American main stream. But we have gotten away from that in the past 25 years.

    I was hoping today we would have an intelligent debate over why people should be voting in a foreign language. Instead we are here talking about churches being burned and gays being bashed. To me that shows the weakness of the argument on the other side. Rather than address the merits of the issue, they are resorting to name calling and ad hominem attacks. I am not talking about Mr. Serrano, because he and I have had this debate many times. I certainly respect his views. I respect his beliefs. I respect his integrity. But too many of the voices from the other side today have resorted to vicious name calling. To me that just undermines and underlines the basic weakness of their argument. It shows that they cannot defend their point intellectually so they have to resort to the ad hominem attacks.

    I urge the adoption of this bill because I believe we do want to bring all people together. We want to stand together as one. We want to have English as our common language. 


    Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) 

    Those who support bilingualism in the United States of America no doubt are well motivated. They care about immigrants and they care about their fellow man, and thus they want to make it easier for them not to learn how to speak English. Well, my colleagues are not doing anybody a favor by making it easier for them not to learn English. People all over the world are struggling to teach their children English and struggling how to learn English because they know that is the key that unlocks the door to opportunity. Those people who are making it easier for our own people, people who live in this country, not to speak English are doing them a great disservice.

    I have a large number of Asians in my district, people who are American citizens who are of Asian descent. When they come to me and ask me my advice on how to make sure they can do well and their children can do well, I always advise them: "Make sure your children learn how to speak English," and I have never had one of them disagree with me. 

    I will tell my colleagues this much: Those people in the Hispanic community who are being led down this downward path by people who care about them are going to resent it in the end when their children do not have the opportunity of other Americans because they are locked out of the American system because they cannot speak English.

    We care. We are the ones who care about every American citizen when we do not give them an easy way out, but we say, "Become part of America, we love you, we have caring in our heart. That's why you should learn to speak English and that's why we are doing you a disservice by making it easier for you to exist in our society without being able to communicate, without being able to be fully part of the economic system."

    Robert Underwood (D-Guam) 

    Mr. Chairman, we are confronted with a bill which has great objectives, the learning of English and use of English as the primary language of government. It also makes the claim that national unity is promoted and that speakers of other languages will be empowered, but the vehicles used in this legislation clearly do not match the intent. 

    The legislation is supposed to promote English, but no funds are given for English teachers or classrooms. Instead, it restricts the behavior of elected officials and agencies, and instead of empowering non-English speakers, it disenfranchises them by taking away the opportunity to cast an informed ballot. 

    As an educator, I took it for granted that the best way to learn was to encourage people and not discourage them. I took it for granted that when one wanted people to feel a sense of unity, they included them and not excluded them. But this is not the approach utilized in this legislation. If we wanted to characterize this legislation in terms of a carrot and stick, it is all stick and not much carrot. 


    Steve Horn (R-Calif.) 

    Mr. Chairman, as an educator, I have long advocated that foreign languages be taught our students in kindergarten, but that does not mean they should not also be taught English. They should, in kindergarten. We have made major mistakes in our language policy in the schools over the last 20 years. Some have said, "But in bilingual ballots you are simply fulfilling equal protection of the laws." That is absolute nonsense. Let us look at the situation. 

    Ethnic groups in this country are not limited to Chinese, not limited to Hispanics, which was the original Lau v. Nichols case in California. In the 1970 census there were 96 mother tongues where languages other than English were primary languages in households where many of our fellow citizens were raised; 1980, 387 non-English language possibilities. In the Los Angeles–Long Beach schools there are 70 languages. We cannot pick just one or two languages if we are really going to have equal protection of the laws. 

    The only way to carry out the 14th Amendment and its equal protection of the laws is to learn English. That is the access for all students of all backgrounds, rich and poor, when they come to this Nation, when their parents come to this Nation. Such a national policy would not stop a friend or a relative who speaks the primary language of the citizen from writing out instructions, helping them with the ballots, helping them learn English. All of that has been historically done in this country by ethic groups from various countries, and we need to have that spread across the land. Such groups have been readily available with each immigrant wave. 

    What such a policy would stop is the illusion that for every language group in a nation, a government agent must be employed or some form of government assistance must be made available to aid all members who understand English less well than their native language. Presumably the naturalized citizens had to learn some English in order to receive citizenship. Before this Nation goes the way of Quebec or engages in the bitter language quarrels of India, I recommend that we adopt the English language in this bill.

    Lincoln Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.) 

    Mr. Chairman, it is fascinating how a vantage point affects one's view. One of the most difficult challenges that I face, that my wife and I face, with two young boys that we are raising is, for their own benefit, to do everything in our power so they will retain the Spanish language. It is extraordinarily difficult, despite the fact that they even joke with me often that every perhaps four or five words I say "Español," reminding them of the necessity, of the importance, that they keep a second tongue; for their own benefit, for their cultural enhancement and enrichment, for their economic competitiveness in the future, how important it is that they retain a second tongue.... 

    Why? Because in this great country, Mr. Chairman, the pressures, the incredible forces for assimilation, for acculturation, for acceptance of the primary language of English is extraordinary. I do not think it has ever been equaled in the history of mankind, that power, the power of English in this culture, which ... through Hollywood and now with technology is spreading across the world. 

    To think of what is under attack in the United States, English? No. A study in our community in south Florida just showed that in the first generation here of people who are arriving on our shores, they are losing Spanish at an alarming rate, so much so that our competitiveness in south Florida is being undermined, and our ability to be effective in the international economy. So I think it is impossible, it is really difficult to understand the viewpoint that what is threatened is not the second and third languages that we should be encouraging our children to learn in this country, for their own benefit and for our economic future, but rather, what is threatened is the English language? I am confused. 

    Let us not be confused, Mr. Chairman, with regard to what this bill is doing. ... Let it be clear that this bill before us today eliminates the protections of 1975 for linguistic minorities in the United States. This is a vote on destroying a significant portion of the Voting Rights Act. ... Democracy not only requires governing by the majority, but respect for the minority. This legislation, which constitutes aggression on linguistic minorities in this country, is anti-Democratic, anti-Democratic, and it constitutes Congressional regression. That is why I oppose it. 


    Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)

    Mr. Chairman, I think we are at a very important turning point for America. This is a country whose doors have always been open, and should always be open to people from across the world. We are a nation of immigrants. Our greatness in part comes from our ability to be a melting pot, to draw from everywhere and to allow people to pursue happiness, to allow people to live under the rule of law, to protect their unalienable rights, and to have everyone be equal before the law. 

    This is a truly remarkable civilization. I agree with Max Lerner's great work on America as a civilization, that we are in fact a unique civilization, partially derived from Europe, partially derived from Africa, partially derived from America, partially derived from Asia, but ultimately, a unique tribute to the concept that we have been endowed by our Creator, and that we represent the greatest extension of freedom to the widest range of people in the history of the world. But there is a key part of that, and this bill is one step in that direction. The key part is very simple: Is there a thing we call American? Is is unique? 

    My Ph.D. is in European history. I believe in studying other countries. I believe in learning other languages. But I believe we start here with America, and we need to learn here about America. I want to say unequivocally that while I cherish every person who comes from anywhere, who comes here legally and seeks to pursue happiness, and I hope all of them decide to stay and become American citizens, but I want them to become American. And part of becoming American involves English. It is vital historically to assert and establish that English is the common language at the heart of our civilization. 

    One does not have to look far to see the dangers. Look north to our friends in Canada and the challenge of separatism in Quebec. Look to the Balkans, look to the continuing tensions in Belgium, a country which has mostly avoided violence and has mostly done a good job but has a very complex and very structure relationship between its Fleming and Walloon populations. Then ask yourself, in an America where there are over 80 languages taught in the California schools as the primary language, not as the secondary language but as the primary language, in a country where in Seattle there are 75 languages being taught, in Chicago there are 100. This is not bilingualism; this is a level of confusion which if it were allowed to develop for another 20 or 30 years would literally lead, I think, to the decay of the core parts of our civilization.

    This bill is a very modest bill. It says English is the official language of the Government. The Government. You can speak any language you want in your homes, you can speak any language you want in private life, you can campaign in any language you want, but all Americans should have access to their government in their common language. ... I believe it is important to understand that we need every citizen and, frankly, in the long run every person who comes here to learn English. We need to be willing to say it proudly and simply and not with hostility but with a sense of joy: "Yes, we want you to come; yes, we want you to immigrate; and, yes, we want you to become American, but there are standards." ... 

    This bill is a very simple bill, a very modest bill. ... These are modest steps in the direction of reinforcing and reasserting the greatest civilization ever to provide freedom to the human race. 


    José Serrano (D-N.Y.) 

    Mr. Speaker, the debate today has been at times painful for some of us because, as was stated on the floor on many occasions, this debate takes what is really a nonissue, this fear that somehow the English language is going to be lost to all of us as our common bond, and puts it on the floor of this House as one of those issues that questions people's patriotism. ... But the fact of life is that some people much brighter than I, than many of us, somewhere interestingly enough in my city on Madison Avenue in an advertising agency decided that this is one of those hot button issues that touches people, confuses them, and gives them what they think is a solution to their problems. 

    That does not talk about poverty in America. It does not talk about the working middle-class struggling to pay a mortgage and send their children to school. It does not talk about taxes. It does not talk about the environment. It does not speak to any of the real issues in this country. It says that because I and other people speak another language and relate to constituents in a language other than English, that somehow we are in danger. 

    That is a misguided, foolishly patriotic approach to a nonissue, but it has worked. Up to now it has worked. People have reacted to it. People who have been members of the Armed Forces, who are in late years, honestly and emotionally believe that if we allow other languages to live side by side with the English language, or in a second category to English, that somehow we are going to lose our country. 

    On many of these issues, my brothers and sisters, I place myself as an example. I think in two languages. I write and read Spanish and English. I can deliver this presentation in Spanish as well as in English. I do not think that any of what I do in two languages has ever been a problem for me or a problem for this country. When I served in the Armed Forces of this country during the Vietnam war, I served with young men who could not speak a word of English who had just arrived here and were drafted or who came from Puerto Rico to serve. Many were volunteers. Many of those young men never came back. They were lost in the battlefields of Vietnam, as they were in Korea and the Second World War and the First World War, and their last words were in Spanish to their God, to their parents. They never spoke English. 

    Yet, Mr. Speaker, this bill says that if the Veterans Administration wants to service them, it cannot service them in a language other than English. It says that I cannot communicate with them in a language other than English. It says that if the Ambassador of Mexico or the new President of the Dominican Republic writes to me in Spanish, I can only answer on the public payroll in English. This is the way to promote ourselves throughout the world? ... 

    This is a misguided concept. My amendment in the nature of a substitute, English Plus, says that English Only is unnecessary. It recognizes that English is the language of this land. It encourages all residents and citizens to speak 

    English. It asks Government to help each one of us to learn to speak English. But it also says, my amendment, that we recognize that there are other languages in this country, and that rather than running away from them and being nervous about them, we should recognize them as a resource for our country. ... 

    What my amendment simply says is that we recognize who we are as a people, but we recognize the diversity in our country and we strengthen that diversity by supporting English as our common and main language, as the language of this country, but also not suggesting that to speak another language, to read another language is a problem. ... 

    Mr. Speaker, let me just close by saying when Hispanics sit around the dinner table and the issue of language comes up, it is never an assault on the English language. It is a lament on the fact that the children and the grandchildren no longer speak Spanish. This is a nonissue.