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Though the session is drawing to a close, and every senator, congressman, and congressional staffer is itching to get out the door for the upcoming holiday, there are still tons of issues left on Congress’ agenda before anybody can pack up and hightail it to the Hamptons for Memorial Day weekend. Immigration, tax reform, drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge… lots of high-profile topics are still left on the table for this session. Yet as last week drew to a close, what was the Senate doing with their time and your money? Addressing these vital issues with full and careful debate, perhaps? Or maybe our senators were busy, carefully weighing both sides of these problems and coming to reasonable and effective solutions for America’s problems? Or perchance were they examining the roots of each issue carefully and attempting to come to a practical, bipartisan agreement that both parties could get behind?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, you’re either A) inspiringly optimistic or B) you haven’t been in Washington very much.

Despite the fact that lots of key issues were still unresolved at the end of last week, the Senate was busy spending its time protecting… English?

Yes. To many of our US Senators, it seems, the second-most spoken language in the world is under grave threat. This, of course, comes as a great shock to the more than half a billion people worldwide who speak it, including the vast majority of Americans. Yet for some reason Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla) saw it necessary to offer an amendment (which passed 63-34) to the Senate immigration bill that would require the government to “preserve and enhance the role of English.”

Now, this isn’t entirely unprecedented. Other nations do similar things with their native languages. The French government, in its goal to zealously preserve all things smelly, has gone so far as to ban the use of certain English expressions in official correspondence. But these are the French. I mean, come on. We should be embarrassed about this amendment, if for no other reason than it brings us dangerously close to agreeing with something the French do. (That reminds me. I heard a good French joke the other day—Q: Why don’t they have fireworks at Euro Disney? A: Because every time they shoot them off, the French try to surrender. But anyway…)

But this amendment is more than just disgustingly European and totally uncalled for. It’s racist. This is a political move, made by the Republicans in an election year debate about an extremely contentious issue about which many Americans feel very passionately. It’s designed to play to the basest fears of many Americans—that they will “lose” control over a country overrun with foreigners—and it’s despicable. This amendment does nothing to preserve any sort of genuine American heritage, but rather undermines it.

Since our country’s birth, and especially in the 20th century, Americans have always seen themselves as a melting pot of cultures. Citizens and nationals of every religion, race, and language have taken their individual cultures and histories and banded together as one nation indivisible. Sure, we all have our different traditions and practices, but that’s the beauty of America. Immigrants have always been able to preserve their personal identities while at the same time embracing the national one. That's what makes us America, and this law threatens the very foundations of our freedoms.

What’s more, this law is doomed to failure from the start. Let’s take a look at Miami-Dade County, which is more than a little familiar with the English-versus-Spanish debate. In 1980, amid a virtual torrent of Spanish-speaking Hispanic immigrants, county commissioners passed an English-only law virtually identical to the one the Senate passed last week, requiring almost all business in the county to be conducted in English. The mandate’s supporters used arguments similar to the ones we’re hearing today, arguing that the law would help preserve the American character of Miami. The law faced the same arguments last week’s amendment does: that it’s offensive and pointless. But Miami’s failure can serve as a harbinger to the nation as a whole if we let it. The law was a total botch. Instead of encouraging immigrants to learn English, it instead simply frustrated them, denying Hispanic and Cuban Miami residents government materials and information in a language that they could understand. By 1993, it had become clear that the law did little more than divide the community (rather than uniting it) and the city commissioners repealed it unanimously. Let Miami serve as a warning to us all regarding the dangers of declaring English the official national language.

Nobody is saying that English isn’t important. It’s the native language of the vast majority of Americans, and virtually all business and community activity takes place in English. That alone is incentive enough for new immigrants to learn English; we shouldn’t have to pass unnecessary laws that are little more than pretense.

It’s time to tell Congress: Stop wasting our time, and just stick to making the laws we actually need.


OrSkolnik said...

On the bright side, this divides up Republican support even further. Yeah, the Republican Congress is wasting its time on pointless political gestures, but at least they're harming themselves in the process. Back in the day, the "English as the National Language" was a wedge against the Democrats, dividing moderate Democrats against liberals and immigrants. This time, nobody even noticed the Democrats; it was clearly a Republican gesture, further dividing conservative Republicans against the much-lauded Hispanic Republican vote. If the Republican Congress wants to spend its time alienating Hispanics, that only helps our side.

Liz Fossett said...

It's funny, because as angry as I get at most things the Republicans do, this doesn't bother me much.

I feel like Americans have enough dividing us and a common language by law is a good thing (look at the weirdness of Belgium's bilingual cities sometime). One language just makes everything easier...

Of course, I am not saying that one language should exclude speakers of any other. It is so important that immigrants are given the opportunity to learn English and therefore become more active members of our community and democracy. Perhaps this new law will push more organizations (and, gasp, maybe even the government) to help provide better services for Spanish (or any language) speaking people.