- The Washington Times - Friday, June 1, 2007

Some Republican senators are calling the English-language requirements in the immigration bill toothless and want the bill to declare English the “national” language of the U.S. and the country’s official means of doing business.

The fight is over whether the bill should call English the “common” language — as it reads now — or deem it the “national,” or official language, which the Republican senators say would cut the amount of government services provided in other languages and would overturn President Clinton’s 2000 executive order that encouraged federal services to be delivered in different languages.

Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, has proposed an amendment to make English the national language — a move that he said declares that “there is not an entitlement for language, other than the English language, to be given to people who want government services. Very simple.”

Even though the same amendment passed as part of last year’s failed immigration bill, many Democrats oppose it, and there is no guarantee that the Senate will allow a vote on it when the chamber finishes the immigration bill next week.

The English issue is closely linked to assimilation, a key part of the immigration debate, and a CBS-New York Times poll last week found that 62 percent of those surveyed thought recent immigrants don’t try to learn English “within a reasonable amount of time.”

The Senate bill tries to encourage English by making former illegal aliens show after four years on a legal visa that they have applied to take an English class and, after another four years, pass the citizenship test’s English requirement before gaining a green card.

In an interview with McClatchy newspapers earlier this week, President Bush said the bill’s declaration of English as the common language is a statement of the importance that he places on assimilation.

He campaigned for president in 2000 against making English the official language and in this week’s interview said that he instead favors an “English-plus” policy.

“English is the gateway to great success in America, plus we want people being able to learn other languages, as well,” he said.

K.C. McAlpin, executive director of ProEnglish, said the bill’s requirements to learn English are empty because they don’t kick in for at least eight years. He also said the test is “a very meaningless hurdle” that requires immigrants to write and read two sentences each in English.

“There’s a lot of evidence to support the idea that many, many immigrants naturalize without any basic English skills at all,” he said.

The overall Senate bill, negotiated behind closed doors by the Bush administration and a bipartisan group of senators, would grant illegal aliens legal status and a path to citizenship, create a temporary-worker program for future workers and give more priority in future immigration to those with needed skills.

Mr. Inhofe’s amendment would mandate that no person is entitled to government services in a language other than English except as required by law, such as court translators to protect defendants’ rights. The amendment also says when the government prints forms in multiple languages, the English one will be the sole authority.

Opponents said that proposal is a solution in search of a problem.

Raul Gonzalez, legislative director at the National Council of La Raza, said that 82 percent of Americans already only speak English, that the government prints fewer than 1 percent of its documents in other languages and that research shows new immigrants learn English just as fast as those from previous generations — all which happens without having English deemed the official language.

“The problem with the Inhofe amendment is it has unintended consequences, or perhaps intended. The most important is it makes it difficult to provide services in languages other than English,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

Peter Zamora, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said immigrants know that speaking English is the key to American life. He said the problem isn’t a lack of desire to learn the language, it’s lack of classes to teach it — including several-year waits for English as a Second Language classes in some major cities.

“For Congress to declare that English is the official language is empty. Instead Congress should ensure that we have the kind of services necessary to help the community integrate,” Mr. Zamora said.

Thirty states already have official English laws on the books and making it the official language draws overwhelming support. In a recent Zogby poll, 83 percent of the 993 likely voters surveyed said they supported such legislation.

The fight played out during last year’s Senate debate, when the chamber passed two amendments, one declaring English the “national” language and the other calling it the “common” language. The “national language” amendment passed 62-35, and the “common language” amendment passed 58-39.

But Mr. McAlpin said calling English “the common language” is simply a statement of fact.

“That’s like saying the sky is blue. It’s a meaningless statement that doesn’t do anything to give English force in law,” he said.

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