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
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
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
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
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
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