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English-only? Press ‘no’

For years it was a bogeyman for those discomfited by immigration, particularly from Mexico: The United States was evolving into two nations, only one of which would speak English. If it was ever true, which is doubtful, it isn’t now. A 2007 report by the Pew Foundation found that, though only 23% of Latino immigrants spoke English very well, the figure rose to 88% for their adult children and 94% in the third generation. Time is the ally of assimilation, not segregation.

That hasn’t stopped the anxiety about non-English speakers, reflected in the applause Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo received during the 2008 campaign when he complained about having to “press 1 for English.” A more considered but still objectionable expression of that attitude is a bill soon to be reintroduced in Congress that would declare English the official language of the United States.

Sponsored by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the legislation starts from a sound premise: that English is a unifying force in a multiethnic, multireligious democracy. But its attempt to enshrine that reality in the law is both unnecessary and harmful.

Some sections of the bill would materially disadvantage immigrants. For example, current law requires candidates for naturalization to be tested on their ability to read, write and speak English and their knowledge of civics. King’s bill would require that “all citizens should be able to read and understand generally the English-language text of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the laws of the United States made in pursuance of the Constitution.” Desirable as mastery of our founding documents may be, even many native-born citizens would struggle with their complex and archaic language.

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Another potential danger to immigrants is contained in the provision requiring that “the official functions of the government of the United States shall be conducted in English.” That would seem to put in doubt ballots printed in other languages under the Voting Rights Act. Prohibiting such ballots would effectively disenfranchise citizens who have a working command of English but lack the advanced skills needed to understand complicated ballot initiatives.

Important as these objections are, the most compelling argument against the bill involves symbolism. Its supporters see it as emblematic of the importance of English as a unifying force. But to many immigrants, including some who speak English fluently, the bill symbolizes something else: cultural and political dominance and the petty resentment of those who don’t want to press 1 for English.


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