The Senate's Doublespeak On the Issue Of English

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 28, 2007

Just when you thought the immigration debate couldn't get more confusing, there's this:

Buried on Page 669 of the 762-page Senate immigration bill, English is declared the "national language." On Page 671, it is the "common language."

Which is it? Both, according to members of the World's Greatest Deliberative Body, a majority of whom voted for each designation. And what's the difference? Who knows!

Common. National. But not "official." Nooooooo. Even if Wolf Blitzer did insist on asking the presidential candidates in recent debates whether English should be the official language. (Most GOP contenders answered yes. The Democrats, not so much.)

What in the name of what Al Gore used to call "plain English" -- during his failed crusade as vice president to make the government communicate clearly -- is going on here?

Let us attempt to translate.

Immigration reform is a touchy subject, causing senators to sweat through their suits, constituents to cuss at pollsters, bloggers to practice human sacrifice. It raises heavy questions: What is the national identity? Who is an American? That's where language comes in, as a proxy for identity.

Resuscitated from near-death earlier this month, the bill faces a key test of support today and a final vote tomorrow. It incorporates an amendment by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) to make English the national language, which passed three weeks ago, 64 to 33. Another provision of the bill, an amendment by Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) to make English the common language, passed 58 to 39. Every single senator present and voting stood up for English, supporting at least one of the amendments.

(Did we forget to mention that both Inhofe and Salazar are proudly proficient in Spanish, sometimes giving speeches in that nonnational, uncommon tongue?)

Now those amendments have been incorporated into the bill.

National, common: What's the difference? The bill doesn't say. Not to get all strict constructionist here, but let's go to the text.

"Declaration of English as Language," Salazar's contribution says in a chapter heading. Yes, English definitely is a language.

"English is the common language of the United States," it continues. "The Government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role of English as the language of the United States."

Flip a page to Inhofe's insertion: "The Government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role of English as the national language of the United States of America."

Big difference. Huge. Mmm-hmm.

So, no more hors d'oeuvres or onion soup au gratin in the Senate dining room? Instead of enchiladas, shall there be unleavened pancakes of corn flour adorned with red sauce and cheese?

No. In a key concession, Inhofe provides: "Nothing in this chapter shall prohibit the use of a language other than English." Memo to President Bush: This is your loophole!

Here's something weird: For all the huffing and puffing about English -- including requirements that immigrants study it -- other parts of the bill sanction official use of foreign languages. Training detention guards in, say, Spanish; instructing the Labor Department to make forms available in Spanish and other languages; informing apprehended children of their rights in native languages.

Still, boil away all the bureaucratese, and one significant difference between the Inhofe and Salazar clauses reveals itself: While both would maintain bilingual services enshrined in existing law, such as translators in court, Salazar defines existing law to include executive orders. Inhofe does not.



See, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order, later put into practice by President Bush, that encouraged federal agencies to provide bilingual services.

Inhofe says his addition would not bar services provided under the executive order, but would change them from being an "entitlement" and save up to $2 billion a year. Supporters of Salazar's approach say it would preserve vital public safety and health services provided in other languages, while encouraging English.

So who's right on the merits? And which is it, national or common? Here's the beautiful part: We don't have to decide! The Senate didn't. In fact, according to a tally by Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of English First, 24 senators voted for both amendments to be included in the bill -- even though on the key question of the executive orders, they cancel each other out!

You say common, I say national, let's call the whole thing off.

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