Loose Ends in a Tattered Fabric:
The Inconsistency of Language Rights in the United States,
By James Crawford

In the spring of 2006, after a decade in remission, the campaign for “Official English” flared up again in the Congress of the United States. An amendment to immigration legislation, passed by the Senate on May 18, designated English as the “national language.” More significantly, the measure sought to restrict access to government in other languages:

"Unless otherwise authorized or provided by law, no person has a right, entitlement, or claim to have the Government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services, or provide materials in any language other than English. If exceptions are made, that does not create a legal entitlement to additional services in that language or any language other than English."

Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who sponsored the amendment, argued that it was necessary to clarify to immigrants their responsibility to learn the English language, adding (somewhat contradictorily) that the importance of learning English was already recognized by the vast majority of foreign-born Americans. Only “extremist groups” would be “offended” by the idea of banning most language rights for ethnic minorities, he asserted. In any case, Inhofe said, U.S. courts had consistently ruled “that civil rights laws protecting against national origin … discrimination do not create rights to Government services and materials in languages other than English.”

Rising in opposition, Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, warned that the amendment would deprive many U.S. residents of rights and services that they would otherwise enjoy if not for the language barrier. By prohibiting bilingual accommodations at government’s discretion, Durbin argued, Congress would – in effect – authorize discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities, breaking with long-established legal principles. As we shall see, both senators presented a defensible interpretation of U.S. law.

Although it passed, 63-34, largely along party lines, the National Language proposal ultimately failed. Inhofe’s amendment died at year’s end, when Congress adjourned before a broader agreement could be reached on the immigration bill to which it was attached. Nevertheless, the measure served to revive a contentious and unresolved debate over language policy. In particular, it highlighted the precarious and inconsistent status of language rights in the United States.

This chapter will survey those rights as they have developed historically; analyze the legal principles that bear on language policies in education, employment, judicial proceedings, and government access; analyze the constitutional issues posed by Official English; and survey the prospects for language rights in the future.

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