Official English Promotes Ignorance

By Miguel Perez

May 9, 2011 9 min read

For at least a couple of decades, they have been lobbying for laws to make English the country's official language. Slowly but surely, English-only zealots have been gaining ground — and taking this country backward!

All over the world, people recognize the huge benefits of speaking several languages. They know it makes them more valuable in a global economy and society. Yet in the "nation of immigrants" that should be leading the world on language diversity and education, official English advocates — and the politicians who cater to them — keep promoting ignorance and polarizing the country!

Over the past few years, "official English" or "English only" advocates have successfully used scare tactics to persuade many Americans that Latinos are trying to impose the Spanish language over English, when, in fact, most of us unfortunately are forgetting our Spanish! Based on false stereotypes, they also have convinced many Americans that Latino immigrants don't want to learn English, when, in fact, all over the country, there are long waiting lists for people trying to get into English as a Second Language classes.

It's hogwash. They know official English laws are not needed. Yet they already have rammed more than 30 official English bills through state legislatures, including some states with Spanish names!

They even managed to fool some Latinos, who were told that making English official was "only symbolic" and not meant to restrict government use of Spanish and other languages. And while some state laws are merely recognition of English as our primary language, at least one was so draconian, in Arizona, that it was declared unconstitutional.

The Arizona amendment declared English "the language of the ballot, the public schools, and all government functions and actions." Yet the Arizona Supreme Court held that "by depriving elected officials and public employees of the ability to communicate with their constituents and with the public," the measure violated their constitutional guarantees of equal protection and the right to petition government and to participate in the political process. It ruled that the law was unconstitutional because it deprived limited-English-speaking citizens from an opportunity to hold "meaningful communications" with their public officials by creating "a linguistic barrier between persons and the government they have the right to petition."

When the U.S. Supreme court refused to hear an appeal to the Arizona ruling in 1999, we thought we were seeing the beginning of the end of the English-only movement. But in spite of what the courts have said, official English advocates, riding on the country's anti-immigrant wave, are making a comeback, now at the federal level. And unfortunately, they are no longer willing to settle for symbolic recognition of the English language. Their agenda is much more Machiavellian!

Emboldened by the country's recent ideological shift to the right, two of their champions in Congress have introduced legislation that calls for all business and services of government to be conducted only in English.

There's nothing symbolic about the aim of new official English bills that have been introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate this year. H.R. 997 and S. 503, sponsored by Republicans Iowa Rep. Steve King and Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, are clear efforts to disenfranchise and disempower Latino immigrants by banning government documents, ballots and even U.S. Census forms currently published in Spanish.

They aim to make it more difficult for legal immigrants to vote, defend themselves in court, obtain a driver's license and even be counted by the Census Bureau. It is an excuse to violate the civil rights of thousands of legal immigrants and citizens by excluding them from the political process and preventing them from acquiring crucial government information about the services to which they are entitled.

Not surprisingly, official English advocates frequently are the same people who have been waging a war of insults on undocumented immigrants. They usually tell us that their problem is only with illegals, until they take off their masks and promote measures that are clearly against legal immigrants.

Their measures are mean-spirited, hostile, unnecessary and discriminatory. While pandering to their conservative constituents, they claim to be solving problems that don't really exist.

"A nation divided by language cannot pull together as effectively as a people," King said in a statement released in March.

How about a nation divided by opportunistic, race-baiting politicians?

Mind you, while this legislation has a shot of passing in the GOP-majority House, it has little chance of clearing the Democrat-majority Senate. And it has even less possibility of getting President Barack Obama's signature, not when Obama already is in trouble with Latino voters for failing to keep his promise to reform our broken immigration system.

Yet, the official English movement persists! Even when Republican politicians know they are introducing legislation that has no chance of passing, they keep introducing bills, just to pander to their xenophobic constituents. It's not unlike Obama, who lately has been pandering to Latinos by promoting a comprehensive immigration reform bill that he knows will not be passed by Congress this year.

King and Inhofe call themselves "champions of promoting English as the official language for the United States." Yet you don't see them fighting for more funding for ESL courses.

They take pride in their efforts to violate the language rights of millions of Americans and they have the audacity to claim that they are doing it to help immigrants assimilate faster.

Clearly, the overwhelming majority of immigrants recognize that English is this country's primary language and that learning it is essential to their well-being. And clearly, no one is trying to impose Spanish or any other language on English speakers.

Those who choose to be monolingual have the right to do so. But they don't have the right to impose their ignorance on others.

Amazingly, they want us to believe that the use of foreign languages in U.S. government affairs is a new phenomenon. In fact, our government has been multilingual since the time of the Continental Congress, when documents frequently were published in English, French and German.

They want us to forget that our Founding Fathers encouraged teaching French, Spanish and German in our schools, or that they were opposed to government telling people what language to use. When they gave us our precious freedom of speech, the authors of our Constitution certainly didn't specify that it had to be in English only!

Yet, when you listen to official English advocates, they make it seem as if their European ancestors started speaking English instantaneously, precisely at the moment when they stepped ashore on Ellis Island and that they left their homeland's culture on the boat. And they refuse to recognize that their ancestors published newspapers and promoted their businesses with foreign-language store signs in our Little Italys, Polands, Germanys and Russias. Some refuse to see the signs in other languages that still are out there today.

Yet they hold new immigrants, especially Latinos, to a different standard. Store signs, billboards, phone messages and supermarket announcements in Spanish — the first European language spoken here — now are annoying to some Americans, especially those who (quite needlessly) feel threatened by the growth in number and political power of the Latino population.

They aim to turn back the clock, to take years away from the progress Latinos have made in this society because their wacky xenophobia tells them that Latinos want to "take over" — and make everyone speak only Spanish!

A federal English-only law would affect only governmental affairs, but since some local politicians have even have tried to ban Spanish on commercial billboards, there is good reason to fear that it could lead to massive discrimination against immigrants in the private sector and throughout society.

Many people would assume they could restrict a citizen's right to express himself freely in the language of his choice. It would create a society in which xenophobia is institutionalized and bigots would feel they have the right to stifle anyone speaking a foreign language.

To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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