Senate Approves English As 'National' Language

Susan Jones | Senior Editor | Friday, May 19, 2006

Senate Approves English As 'National' Language

( - An amendment to the Senate immigration bill would make English the "national language of the United States." The Senate voted 63-34 to adopt the amendment, which was offered by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.)

The measure declares that there is no affirmative right to receive services in languages other than English, except where required by federal law. In other words, the amendment is mostly symbolic -- it will not change the way the government prints documents or conducts business.

Also on Thursday -- confusing the issue -- the Senate also voted 58-39 in favor of a second, weaker amendment, offered by Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.). The Salazar amendment declared English to be "the common and unifying language of the United States."

Inhofe's strong amendment is getting the most attention, however.

Critics, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, called the Inhofe amendment racist, regardless of its intent. Sen. John McCain worried about making English the "official" language. "It gives the idea that any other language is excluded," he said.

But advocacy groups such as U.S. English and English First hailed passage of the Inhofe amendment.

"Today's vote heeded the voices of the vast majority of Americans who believe that English is a crucial part of being an American," said Mauro Mujica, chairman of the board of U.S. English.

He said Thursday's "historic" vote making English the national language corrects a longstanding oversight.

U.S. English points to a 2005 Zogby International poll showing that 79 percent of Americans support making English the official language of the United States, including more than two-thirds of Democrats and four-fifths of first- and second-generation Americans.

Even President Bush has embraced the importance of immigrants learning to speak English. In his address to the nation Monday night, President Bush said, "The success of our country depends upon helping newcomers assimilate into our society and embrace our common identity as Americans."

Bush called the English language "the key to unlocking the opportunity of America."

"The debate on the Senate floor today contained many different viewpoints, but the senators were unanimous in their belief that English is the unifying factor and the key to opportunity in the United States," said Mujica.

He said a diverse country must focus on thing that bring it together: "Without a common language, we are not a nation of immigrants, but instead groups of immigrants living in a nation."

U.S. English, founded in 1983 by the late Sen. S.I. Hayakawa of California, describes itself as the nation's oldest and largest non- partisan citizens' action group dedicated to preserving the unifying role of the English language in the United States.

'Weathervane senators'

Another advocacy group, English First, called the Inhofe amendment "the only serious approach to the language issue."

English First criticized the 25 U.S. senators who voted for Inhofe's amendment - then immediately undercut their votes by also approving Salazar's amendment.

"These weathervanes may thing they have fooled their constituents back home by voting both for and against the Inhofe amendment. We'll see," said Jim Boulet Jr., Executive Director of English First.

Republicans accused of undermining the Inhofe amendment include Brownback (Kan.), Chafee (R.I.), Coleman (Minn.), DeWine (Ohio), Graham (S.C.), Hagel (Neb.), McCain (Ariz.), Murkowski (Alaska), Snowe (Maine), Specter (Penn.), Voinovich (Ohio), and Warner (Va.).

Legislation pending in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 997) also would make English the official language; that bill now has about 150 co-sponsors.

More than half of the states have passed laws making English the official language. The American Civil Liberties Union has successfully challenged some of those laws on the grounds that they unconstitutionally deny non-English speakers "fair and equal access to their government ."

Official language laws make non-English speakers second-class citizens, the ACLU has argued.

See Earlier Story:
ProEnglish Group Sues Government Over Translation Requirement (31 Aug. 2004)