Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this story incorrectly identified the speaker who protested the "insidious" part of the committee hearings. The story originally attributed it to Raul Gonzalez, but the actual speaker was Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.). This version has been corrected.

House Panel Examines The Future of English

By Rama Lakshmi
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 27, 2006; 12:34 PM

Against the backdrop of a larger national debate on immigration laws, the House Committee on Education Reform today examined different perspectives on the controversial issue of making English the nation's official language.

The session, the second in a series of committee hearings to focus on various aspects of the proposed changes to U.S. border security and enforcement, featured testimony from five witnesses who expressed concerns about stoking divisiveness in American society.

"The move to make English the official language will yield no discernible benefit," said witness John Trasvina, interim president of the California-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "Discrimination will be made our official language. . . . It will promote divisiveness."

Arguing for the move to make English the official language for everyone, Mauro Mujica, the chairman of the group, U.S. English, pleaded for "preserving the unifying role of English." Mujica's group has been advocating making English official since the 1980s.

"We have so many languages in our country. How are we going to have 50 translators in every hospital and 25 in doctors' office?" asked Mujica. "If anything is divisive, it is saying, it does not matter what language you speak, we will be there to translate."

According to the U.S. Census records quoted by witnesses, 92 percent of Americans speak English with no difficulty and 82 percent speak only English. Those arguing against the move said that the long waiting lists in different states for English classes demonstrate the desire and the determination of immigrant groups to learn the language.

The chairman of the committee, Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), remarked that the practice of learning English by choice gave rise to segregated societies. He said that there was a need to force new immigrants out of their "comfort zones" of associating with only those who shared their language and culture.

Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) protested the "insidious" part of the committee hearings that strengthened "racially tinged myths and false stereotype that immigrants don't want to learn."

"The move to make English the official language can only be viewed as an extremist document and counterproductive," Gonzalez said. "The Congress can do better by taking affirmative steps by increasing spending in English as Second Language programs and Family Literacy Programs."

Arguing that English is the language of opportunity, which would empower the new immigrants to enjoy the fruits of the American dream, Mujica said that he was not suggesting that America become "an English-only nation" but he did not want it to be "an English-optional nation" either.

Last year, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) introduced a bill to establish a federal law declaring English as the official language. The bill would require the federal government to conduct business in English but would not put restrictions on languages spoken in the private sector.

In 2002, Iowa passed a similar law for all state government operations.

Iowa State Sen. Paul McKinley (R) said that his state's rich diversity of people from assorted backgrounds had belied fears that the state law would somehow be seen "as an act not welcoming legal immigrants." He said the state has set up new immigrant centers to boost assimilation and expanded legislations for English language learning.

This is not the first time there has been a debate on English in the United States. In 1996, the Senate failed to act on the Emerson English Language Empowerment Act, a bill that was passed by the House to make English the official language of the U.S. government.

Earlier this month, the small former coal-mining town of Hazelton, Pa., passed a law that seeks to establish English as the town's official language and will deny business permits to anyone hiring illegal immigrants.

Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.) pointed out that Mexico has an official language policy and that had not created a "crisis for American citizens in Mexico."

"I don't understand this resistance. If you come to America, then learn our language," he said. "It is such a basic thing. I am astounded by this opposition."

Mujica echoed that sentiment. "Today the Official English laws have been blamed for everything. But they left out global warming. Lets bring that in too."

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