Monday, January 22, 2007

The push to make English the nation’s official language is building momentum, with a congressional bill on the horizon and seven states pushing legislation to make English the official language or to strengthen laws already in place.

“There’s been such strong support,” said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican. “And it’s gaining momentum.”

Mr. King is expected next month to reintroduce the English Language Unity Act, which seeks to make English the nation’s official language. However, he said that timetable had been postponed until House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could complete the Democrats’ “first 100 hours” agenda. “Nancy Pelosi has us under martial law,” he said.

“The states have been wonderful on this,” said Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of English First, an organization that supports making English the official language. “The problem isn’t getting bills passed, it’s getting them enforced.” Mr. Boulet described Mr. King’s bill as “a good first step.”

In the last session of Congress, Mr. King drafted similar legislation and counted 160 co-sponsors, placing the bill in the top 2 percent of co-sponsored legislation. Although control of Congress has switched hands, the bill’s advocates say the issue has broad, bipartisan support. “We don’t necessarily expect them to jump in and say they support this unanimously,” said Rob Toonkel, spokesman for U.S. English Inc., a group that supports making English the official language.

The legislation would not bar private businesses or individuals from using multilingual material, but it does seek to prevent federal funds from being spent on such efforts.

Mr. King has long been an advocate of English-language laws. In 2002, as a state senator, Mr. King authored a successful bill making English the official language in Iowa. The bill was signed by then-Gov. Tom Vilsack, who is now a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.

Mr. King on Jan. 10 filed a lawsuit in state district court against Gov. Chet Culver and Secretary of State Michael Mauro, both Democrats, for violating Iowa’s English-language law. The lawsuit accuses Mr. Culver, who served as secretary of state before running for governor, and Mr. Mauro of illegally placing voter-registration forms and absentee-ballot request forms on Iowa’s secretary of state Web site in foreign languages.

Meanwhile, English-language laws have been introduced by state legislators in Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey and Oklahoma. Similar legislation is expected to be introduced in other states before the end of the month. Culpeper County in Virginia and Cabarrus County in North Carolina have introduced their own English-language proposals as well.

Last month, voters in Arizona passed legislation making English the state’s official language by a margin of more than 2-to-1. “The people have been well-ahead of the politicians on this one for a long time,” Mr. Boulet said.

Although immigration legislation remains stalled in the halls of Capitol Hill, some supporters of making English the official language say that ambiguity has had unforeseen benefits. “[Immigration and Naturalization Service] had a record number of people applying for citizenship last year,” Mr. Toonkel said.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services said there was an 18 percent increase in requests for citizenship applications during the first half of last year compared with 2005. Similar surges have followed a tightening of illegal-alien laws passed in states such as Arizona and California. After California passed its Proposition 187 in 1996, a total of 378,014 persons were naturalized. That was more than double the previous year’s figure, when 136,727 persons were naturalized.

“This is the strongest push for official English legislation that I have seen in the last 15 years,” said U.S. English Chairman Mauro E. Mujica. “I hope the jump-start that this issue has received will pay dividends in the near future by making English the official language and knocking down the linguistic barriers that divide our society.”

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