English Only Update IV

            Senators Seek Divisions among
            English Only Opponents

            By James Crawford

            March 9, 1996


Senate backers of the "Language of Government Act," S. 356, hoping to make the proposal more palatable to their colleagues, plan to exempt "the use of indigenous or foreign languages in education" from the bill's English-only mandate. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, endorsed this "clarifying amendment" at a March 7 hearing on S. 356.

As currently drafted, the legislation requires that English be used by "all employees and officials of the Government of the United States while performing official business." Exceptions are allowed only for purposes of foreign-language teaching, international trade and diplomacy, public health, protection of "the rights of victims of crimes or criminal defendants," and "terms of art ... from languages other than English."

The amendment, which is supported by some Democrats otherwise skeptical of S. 356, would shield programs funded under the Bilingual Education Act and the Native American Languages Act from the bill's restrictions. It would do nothing, however, to safeguard other rights and services now available to limited-English speakers, including bilingual voting.

A broad coalition of educators, civil libertarians, and minority rights advocates has argued that S. 356 "cannot be fixed" to eliminate its ethnically divisive and discriminatory impact. But a few Native American groups have campaigned merely to exempt indigenous languages from the English-only policy.

Sen. Stevens attempted to exploit this division at the March 7 hearing, the first opportunity for opponents of S. 356 to be heard. (At an earlier hearing on December 6, only supporters were allowed to testify.) Five Native American witnesses all but one selected by Stevens detailed their concerns about the bill's threat to their languages, many of which are already endangered.

Stevens asked Iliodor Philemonof, an Alaska Native linguist, whether "the Aleut people would still oppose the bill" if the amendment were approved. Philemonof called the exception for language education "an improvement" and said "I'm not sure they would really oppose the bill" now. Speaking personally, however, he added, "I would still have some problems with it."

None of the other Native American witnesses commented on whether the amendment satisfied their objections. JoAnn Chase, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, took issue with a provision of S. 356 that would protect only English speakers from language-based discrimination. It would be equally wrong to deny government services to Native Americans on that basis, she said, making no mention of other minority language speakers.

Leonard Chee of the Navajo Tribal Council, which has voted to oppose any version of English-only legislation, cited a range of adverse effects for Navajos who speak little English, including the denial of services at Social Security offices.

Kauanoe Kamana, president of the 'Aha Punana Leo immersion schools in Hawaii, proposed amendments to S. 356 that would enhance federal support for indigenous language education and give Native American programs priority in funding ahead of programs for immigrant language groups. (Currently, criteria for awarding grants under the Bilingual Education Act focus on program quality, with no set-asides for any language group. Under the 1994 version of the law, priority is given to funding school programs that stress full proficiency in two languages and to serving diverse populations of limited-English-proficient students.)

Stevens has been solicitous of indigenous language advocates, first, because of strong feelings among his Alaska Native constituents, and second, because the support of at least some Native American groups could exert a decisive influence on wavering members of Congress. The vote on the Language of Government Act is expected to be especially close in the Senate.

Apparently sensing that the time is not yet ripe to move the legislation, Stevens has decided to postpone committee action on S. 356 from March 28 until sometime in June, according to staff sources.

Several Democratic members of Congress testified against the bill on March 7. Sen. Paul Simon (Ill.) criticized it as a "not very subtle symbolic attack" on Hispanic and Asian Americans. "It's very interesting to me," he said, "that frequently the people who say, 'Let's make English the official language' are the very people who oppose appropriations for the education" of non-English speakers.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) characterized the English-only mandate as an attempt "to label one language and culture superior to others" that is profoundly offensive to the multicultural citizens of his state.

Rep. Patsy Mink (Hawai`i) said the legislation would impede her efforts to conduct official business as a member of Congress, which require her to communicate with constituents who speak numerous languages.

Rep. Nydia Velasquez (N.Y.) argued that the bill would legitimize discrimination against minority language speakers while doing nothing to help anyone learn English, citing the long waiting lists for adult English classes in her district.

Del. Robert Underwood (Guam) noted the irony of a bill that purports to foster national unity but is having precisely the opposite effect: "The implication is that citizens who speak another language, as I do, are somehow creating fault lines in the American body politic. There is no problem with the use of English today in the American civic and economic and political life. Immigrants recognize the need to learn English and they are learning it faster than ever before. ...

"No one questions the fact that the Potomac is the largest river flowing through Washington, D.C. How absurd it would be to propose legislation declaring the Potomac to be the only official river. Clearly, the intent of such legislation would be for no other purpose than to belittle other rivers. Rather than revolving any particular problem in government, mandating English as our official language is to communicate a negative and divisive message about people who can speak other languages."

Juan Perea, a law professor at the University of Florida, warned that a section of S. 356 would create "great mischief" by giving "any person standing to sue any [government official] for speaking a language other than English." He added that, like an Arizona English-only measure ruled unconstitutional in federal court, the bill would violate the First Amendment by creating "a chilling effect on federal employees who need to speak other languages" on the job.

Karen Narasaki, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, outlined in detail the potential impact of S. 356 on minority rights, public services, due process, law enforcement, and government efficiency. When she finished, Stevens said: "I don't have time to argue with you, but I disagree with many of your assertions."

At times the chairman appeared defensive and uncertain about the bill's implications. No other Republican attended the hearing and the chief sponsor of S. 356, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), did not appear as scheduled to question witnesses. Sen. Stevens repeatedly invoked the views of his late friend and colleague, Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R-Calif.), who sponsored the first constitutional Official English amendment before his retirement in 1983.

At one point Stevens argued that S. 356 is needed to prevent "a Quebec-type situation" from occurring in the United States. At another he charged that "in California there are several schools that teach only in a foreign language" at taxpayers' expense and "there's no act to [prohibit] that."

Later he insisted: "I do not think [a federal official] can force a non-foreign-language-speaking citizen to deal in another language in an official capacity. That's what this bill is dealing with. Sen. Shelby can explain it further it's not my bill."


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Copyright © 1996 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.