English-Only Debated, Again

Adopting English as the official language when conducting federal government business would unify the country and be "essential to immigrant success," supporters of the English-only bill said during a hearing on Thursday.

But critics of the legislation, H.R. 997, the English Language Unity Act of 2011, say it would do nothing to promote the learning of English but rather exclude immigrants who are not yet proficient in the language. Services, documents, and translations would no longer be available for most official transactions.

(Related Special Report: The Next America's "Language of Success")

Debates on whether English should be designated as the official language have surfaced from time to time. Interest in these laws has typically spiked during high periods of new immigration, prompting many of their advocates to question the real motives behind such efforts.

It promotes the alienation of immigrants if they happen to be speaking in a language other than English, for example, at a local grocery store or restaurant, some say.

"It makes people suspicious if they happen to be speaking to their friends in Spanish" or speak English with an accent, said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director at America's Voice.

"They are learning English as fast as they can," said Rep. Charles Gonzalez, D-Texas, who testified during the hearing. He said that language acquisition is generational, meaning that as immigrants live in the country longer, their children, and their children's offspring, are picking up the language. "There's no need for English-only bills," Gonzalez said.

A 2012 report by the Pew Hispanic Center found that while first-generation immigrant Latinos struggle with English, the second and third generation predominantly speak the language.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, would include a requirement that testing for U.S. citizenship be conducted only in English. Currently, some immigrants, mostly those age 50 or older, are allowed to take the civics test in the language of their choice.

Exceptions would be made for services and documents that protect public safety and health, as well as those required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, King said. Some federal agencies, such as the State Department and the Census Bureau, would also be exempt.

Immigrants view learning English as a pathway to gaining upward mobility and improving their lives in this country, those who testified in favor and against the bill said during the hearing. What they did not agree on is whether government should pass English-only laws.

Creating and funding educational programs is a "far less restrictive" means of encouraging immigrants to learn English than passing laws, said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., ranking member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution.

Some committee members wondered what would be the impact of English-only laws on immigrants at a time when budgets for language classes at public schools, universities, and community programs have been slashed.

"Do most English courses have waiting lists?" Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., asked a witness.

Having bilingual documents have allowed naturalized U.S. citizens to engage the political system, said Florida state Sen. Rene Garcia, who testified against the bill.

"More inclusion ensuring that they have a voice," he said, adding that the number of Haitians and Latinos have increased, and having English-only ballots likely would reverse that. "We're excluding them from politics."

At one point during the hearing, committee member Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., read his speech entirely in Spanish, without an English version.

The legislation being considered, he said in Spanish, "hará mucho daño"  — will do a lot of harm.