English Only Update I
Members of Congress Differ on English Only Restrictions
By James Crawford
October 20, 1995
Members of Congress debated the pros and cons of English-only legislation at an Oct. 18 hearing of the House subcommittee on early childhood, youth, and families. Sponsors of the four major "Language of Government" bills stressed several familiar themes: the need to preserve English as the "social glue" uniting Americans, the alleged failure of bilingual education to assimilate immigrants, and the specter of civil strife brought on by language diversity. None made mention of the special situation of Native American languages or how they might be affected by the legislation. Some exerpts follow.
Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Mo.), sponsor of H.R. 123: "In an effort to assist the limited-English proficient individual, the federal goverment has sanctioned and promoted what amounts to official multilingualism.... Such a policy sends the very destructive message of linguistic and social separatism and would effectively create a number of linguistic ghettos across the country."
Rep. Toby Roth (R-Wisc.), sponsor of H.R. 739: "We're losing our common bond. For one in seven Americans, English is a foreign language."
Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), sponsor of H.R. 1005: "The purveyors of political correctness have been successful in instituting big government programs to actively dissuade new immigrants from learning English."
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), sponsor of S. 356: "I believe all functions of government should be performed in English ... the language of opportunity in this country."
Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.), cosponsor of several bills, called for a "common-sense approach. This is America, English is our language, and that's that. ... Enough is enough of this bleeding-heart stuff."
Opponents questioned the need for an official U.S. language after more than 200 years of doing without one, cited the bills' threat to minority rights and educational opportunities, and warned that they would foster intolerance and division. Rep. Jose Serrano, sponsor of H. Con. Res. 83, an "English Plus" resolution, argued that the English-only legislation as currently drafted would make it illegal for him to communicate with constituents in Spanish (and invite lawsuits against him if he did). Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.) noted that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently struck down a similar English-only measure in his home state, ruling that it violated First Amendment guarantees of free speech for state officials and employees.
Robert Underwood (D-Guam) added that English is already the federal government's "de facto official language. No one seriously advocates it should be otherwise and no one offers other languages as official mediums of communication. ... [English-only] advocates should take heart, declare victory, and go home. ... [These bills] encourage nativism in our population and send a very negative message about the conservation of our linguistic resources as a country."
Others who testified in opposition included Reps. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), and Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas).
Six of the subcommittee's 8 Democratic members attended the hearing, and of these, all opposed the English-only bills and several made mention of indigenous languages. Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) cited the valuable contributions of Navajo and Mohawk code-talkers during World War II. Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) noted that several tribes in his state, the Crow in particular, continue to raise children bilingually. And Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii) expressed concern that English-only legislation would imperil efforts to revitalize Native Hawaiian, which her state made a co-official language (along with English) in 1978.
Only 4 of the panel's 10 Republican members attended, and all raised serious questions about the need for English-only legislation. Advocates for English Plus plan to meet further with these members and to mobilize letters from their constituents in hopes of strengthening these doubts. These Republicans include the subcommittee's chairman, Randy "Duke" Cunningham (Calif.), Steve Gunderson (Wisc.), Michael Castle (Del.), and Mark Edward Souder (Ind.). If two of these Republicans voted no, the English-only bills would likely be defeated in subcommittee.
This optimism was somewhat tempered, however, by increasing support for English-only bills among other House members. Rep. Emerson now claims 200+ cosponsors for H.R. 123. To pass legislation in the House, 218 votes are required. In addition, the House Republican leadership remains strongly in support of these measures, apparently having decided to exploit English-only as a partisan issue (something it has rarely been in the past).
The subcommittee has scheduled another day of hearings on Nov. 1, at which time non-members of Congress will be allowed to testify. At this writing, however, no list of witnesses has been agreed upon. Meanwhile, Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), has announced plans to hold English-only hearings in the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee before the end of this year. And there are unconfirmed reports that the House Judiciary Committee, which shares jurisdiction over the English-only bills, plans hearings as well.
Most observers do not expect formal votes on this legislation, either in committee on on the House or Senate floors, until sometime next year, when the English-only issue is expected to figure in Presidential politics.
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Copyright © 1995 by James Crawford. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this article for free, noncommercial distribution, provided that credit is given and this notice is included. Requests for permission to reproduce in any other form should be forwarded by email.