After an emotional debate fraught with symbolism, the Senate yesterday voted to make English the "national language" of the United States, declaring that no one has a right to federal communications or services in a language other than English except for those already guaranteed by law.
The measure, approved 63 to 34, directs the government to "preserve and enhance" the role of English, without altering current laws that require some government documents and services be provided in other languages. Opponents, however, said it could negate executive orders, regulations, civil service guidances and other multilingual ordinances not officially sanctioned by acts of Congress.
That vote, considered a defeat for immigration-rights advocates, was followed last night by an important victory: By 58 to 35, the Senate killed an amendment that would have blocked eventual citizenship for future immigrants who arrive under a temporary work permit. Democrats and Republicans agreed that the amendment would have destroyed the fragile, bipartisan coalition backing the Senate bill.
The Senate action came hours after President Bush, who visited the border town of Yuma, Ariz., asked Congress to approve a $1.95 billion budget request to deploy National Guard troops and 1,000 additional enforcement agents to the U.S.-Mexico border. Bush also endorsed for the first time the construction of 370 miles of southern border fences to cut down on illegal immigration.
The English language vote continued the conservative turn that a major overhaul of the nation's immigration laws has taken since the Senate began debate this week. The comprehensive legislation would strengthen border security, allow illegal immigrants who have been in the country five years or more to remain and eventually become citizens, and create a guest-worker program.
With approval of a triple-layered border fence Wednesday, the capping of the annual number of guest-worker visas at 200,000 and the English-language amendment yesterday, Republicans say the bill is tougher than the original version and comes closer to what is needed to satisfy many conservatives.
But immigrants-rights groups say their support is teetering. "This is devastating," said Raul Gonzalez, legislative director of the National Council of La Raza, after the English-language vote. "For us, this is a tough issue to bring back to the community."
Only nine Senate Democrats voted for the amendment and one Republican, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (N.M.), voted against it. Maryland's two Democratic senators voted against it, and Virginia's two GOP senators voted for it.
The English-language debate has roiled U.S. politics for decades and, in some quarters, has been as controversial and important as an amendment to ban flag burning.
The impact of the language amendment was unclear even after its passage. The wording negating claims to multilingual services appears straightforward. It also sets requirements that immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship know the English language and U.S. history. The amendment would require more thorough testing to demonstrate English-language proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history and elements of U.S. culture such as the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem.
But its author, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), made two last-minute changes that some opponents said would reduce its effect significantly. By stipulating that the English-only mandates could not negate existing laws, Inhofe spared current ordinances that allow bilingual education or multilingual ballots. By changing the amendment to label English the "national language" rather than the "official language" of the country, Inhofe may have lessened its symbolic power.
"In my view, we had it watered down enough to make it acceptable," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the chief architects of the immigration bill.
But pro-immigration groups and some Democrats said the amendment would obliterate executive orders issued by President Bill Clinton that mandated multilingual services and communications in a variety of federal agencies, and could undermine court orders, agency regulations, civil service guidances, and state and local ordinances that call for multilingual services.
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) called the amendment "racist," and Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) dismissed it as divisive and anti-American.
Further complicating the picture, moments after approving the Inhofe amendment, the Senate voted 58 to 39 to approve a competing amendment by Salazar. It declared English the "common unifying language of the United States," but mandated that nothing in that declaration "shall diminish or expand any existing rights" regarding multilingual services.
Senators said the conflict will have to be worked out in negotiations with the House.
During his appearance in Arizona with Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) in attendance, Bush offered some tough talk. After touring a porous section of the border that has helped turn Yuma into a hotbed for illegal workers, Bush told a group of federal patrol agents that the White House is committed to sending reinforcements soon, and to significantly expanding security and staff over the next several years.
"It's time to get immediate results," Bush said at the Yuma Sector Border Patrol headquarters.
But administration officials made it clear that the $1.95 billion for the president's border initiative should come out of the same money approved by the Senate in its version of an emergency war spending bill.
That angered Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who had secured that money solely for capital expenditures, such as fences, sensors and watchtowers, not border security operations. But Gregg said he has "been told rather bluntly" some of those expenditures will have to wait.
The White House said the new budget request by Bush would cover the $750 million-plus Guard deployment, new agents, fences and barriers, five helicopters and two new unmanned surveillance aircraft. The money would be offset by delaying other military purchases, according to the White House.