Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) made history Tuesday, becoming the first senator of the modern era to deliver a Senate floor speech entirely in Spanish as he explained his support for a bipartisan immigration bill up for consideration.
Over the course of a 14-minute speech, Kaine said he wanted to use the Spanish-speaking skills he learned working in Honduras in order to explain aspects of the bill to the roughly 40 million Spanish speakers living in the United States.
"El senado ha comenzado un debate histórico sobre una reforma migratoria comprensiva," Kaine said at the start of his remarks. Roughly translated, he said that "The Senate has started an historic debate about comprehensive immigration reform."
"Creo que es apropiado que tome unos pocos minutos para explicar la legislación en español," he added, which means "I think it is appropriate that I spend a few minutes explaining the bill in Spanish" -- a language, he said, that has been spoken in North America since Spanish explorers established St. Augustine, Fla. in 1565.
Towards the end of his remarks, Kaine said that "Nuestro sistema no satisface las demandas de negocios que desean atraer y retener inmigrantes sumamente calificados," or that "Our immigration system does not meet the demands of businesses that wish to attract and retain highly qualified immigrants."
Kaine concluded by saying that "Espero que podamos empezar un nuevo capítulo y que mandemos un mensaje fuerte al mundo y la nación que somos un país de leyes pero también de justicia e igualdad." In English that means, "I hope that we can begin a new chapter and that we will deliver a message to the nation and the world that we are a country of laws, but also of justice and equality."
Kaine, a freshman senator and former governor of Virginia, took a break from his studies at Harvard Law School in the early 1980s and worked with Jesuit missionaries by running a Roman Catholic school in Honduras.
In an interview after the speech, Kaine said he first thought of delivering remarks in Spanish about six weeks ago, and finalized plans to do so on Sunday. Two Spanish-speaking staffers were working with him to write the speech in Spanish up until Tuesday morning.
"I had two sets of eyes helping me," he said, joking later that despite his strong Spanish diction, "I'm definitely a gringo," using a Spanish term that describes foreigners.
Kaine's remarks came immediately after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced an amendment to the immigration bill that would mandate that illegal immigrants learn English before earning permanent U.S. residency.
But Kaine said he liked speaking after the chamber's most high-profile Hispanic, because "although my speech wasn’t a translation, he was going through the various aspects of the bill and I just did exactly the same thing and did it in Spanish."
Speaking a language other than English on the Senate floor is rare. According to records kept by the Senate Library, Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) had a 2004 Senate floor speech he delivered in English later translated into Lakota, the language of Sioux tribes. In 2005, Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who is of Cuban descent, spoke some Spanish while giving floor remarks, and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) also spoke briefly in Spanish that year.
The Senate Library said it has no record of the three Hispanic senators -- Rubio, Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) -- giving any extended remarks in Spanish.
On at least four occasions senators have either used sign language or asked permission for a sign language interpreter to provide simultaneous translation of their remarks, according to the Library.
Most recently, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) requested a sign language interpreter as he spoke about a rare neurologic tumor condition. In 2005, Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) also requested sign language interpretation during debate over a budget bill.
Sen. Robert W. Kasten Jr. (R-Wis.) was the first to request simultaneous sign language interpretation in 1989 during debate over passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 2000, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) used sign language on the Senate floor to mark the anniversary of the bill's passage.
As he reflected on his feat, Kaine said he hopes he’s not the only one who plans to debate immigration in another language.
“I’m going to cross my fingers that some of the other senators with language fluency might pop up and do the same thing,” he said. For example, Kaine said that if his predecessor, former Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), were still in office, “He’d be able to speak Vietnamese.”
An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported Kaine's job in Honduras. It has been corrected.
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