LINGUIST List 7.1121

Thu Aug 8 1996

FYI: Linguistic legislation in the USA

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  1. Johanna Rubba, Linguistic legislation in the USA

Message 1: Linguistic legislation in the USA

Date: Mon, 05 Aug 1996 14:14:56 PDT
From: Johanna Rubba <jrubbaharp.aix.calpoly.edu>
Subject: Linguistic legislation in the USA

>From our Washington correspondent, James Crawford (July 25, 1996):

A modified English-Only bill, approved yesterday by the House Economic
and Educational Opportunities Committee, appears to be on a legislative
fast track. After months of inaction, H.R.123 (the "Language of Govern-
ment Act") is suddenly a priority for House Republican leaders. The
measure is expected to come to a vote late next week, before Congress
leaves for its August recess. With nearly 200 cosponsors and a clear
display of party discipline in committee, the English-Only bill seems
likely to pass in the House, although Senate support remains uncertain.

If enacted, H.R.123 would designate English as the official -- and sole
permissible -- language of U.S. government business, with only a few
exceptions. The use of other languages would be permitted for purposes
of national security, international trade and diplomacy, public safety,
and criminal proceedings.

To mollify critics of the bill's restrictiveness, Rep. Randy Cunningham
(R-Calif.) proposed an amended version of H.R.123 that would also waive
the English-Only mandate in the case of language education -- including
programs funded under the Bilingual Education Act and the Native American
Languages Act -- public health, census activities, and civil lawsuits
brought by the U.S. government. It would also exempt oral communications
with the public by federal employees, officials, and members of Congress.
Federal publications -- that is, virtually all written materials -- in
languages other than English would still be banned. The House committee
passed the Cunningham "substitute" on a vote of 19 Republicans in favor
and 17 Democrats against. The committee's day-long session was remark-
able for its rancor and partisanship, even by the standards of the 104th
Congress. Democrats accused the Republican majority of desperately
seeking to exploit anti-immigrant feeling in an election year, even if
that meant violating constitutional principles of free speech and equal
rights. "What about people who think in another language?" asked ranking
Democrat Bill Clay (Mo.). "Would your bill prohibit that?" Republicans
labeled such attacks as "demagogy," insisting they merely want to unite
the country through a common language and help newcomers learn English.

Rep. Matthew Martinez (D-Calif.) argued that the bill would deprive
limited English speakers of essential rights and services while doing
nothing to address the acute shortage of adult English classes in cities
like New York and Los Angeles. (In the past two years, Congressional
budget cutters have substantially reduced federal support for such
classes.) "The idea that people who come to this country don't want to
speak English is the sickest thing I've ever heard," Martinez said,
accusing the bill's proponents of "promoting fear" of language minorities.
"I'm sorry that people on the other side of the aisle are so insecure
that they feel they need to do this," he said.

Cunningham responded to Martinez: "You want to keep people in the barrio"
by discouraging them from learning English. "We want to empower them."
Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) added that "the purpose of this bill isn't
just to make people speak English; it's to help them reach the American
dream." As a small business owner, Ballenger said he had personally
sponsored language classes for his foreign-born employees. "My Vietnam-
ese are the best workers in the world because they can speak English,"
he said.

Citing the majority's refusal to discuss constitutional objections or to
justify any need for the legislation, Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) called
the session "the most maddening debate I've sat through in my 18 years
in Congress." Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) observed that even though
everyone was speaking English, there was little communication taking
place between the two sides.

Throughout the day the partisan split was consistent in votes on several
proposed amendments, with not a single defection from either the Demo-
cratic or Republican side.

The committee rejected an amendment by Del. Carlos Romero-Barcelo
(D-Puerto Rico) that would have allowed federal agencies to communicate
in other languages to promote government efficiency. Rep. Jan Meyers
(R-Kans.) argued that such an exemption would "totally gut the bill.
What we're saying is that agencies must communicate in English....If I
was in China, I wouldn't expect their government to print everything in
my language."

The lawmakers then approved a proposal by Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
to extend English-only restrictions to all "publications, informational
materials, income-tax forms, and the contents of franked [i.e., Con-
gressional and other U.S. government] mail." Under questioning, Graham
conceded that his amendment would forbid virtually any written communi-
cation by a federal agency in another language, including the tourist-
oriented pamphlets of the National Park Service. Graham insisted,
however, that "common sense" would eliminate any need to remove "E
Pluribus Unum" from U.S. currency and coins.

Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hi.) offered an amendment to keep the bill from in-
fringing the freedom of speech, due process, and equal protection of the
law. But Republicans objected to including what Graham called a "laundry
list" of constitutional rights. Instead, they inserted an assurance that
H.R.123 was not intended to conflict with the U.S. Constitution.

Finally, the committee rejected an English Plus substitute proposed by
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.). It would have removed the bill's re-
strictive features and advocated a policy of encouraging the acquisition
of English, plus other languages, to promote international competitive-
ness and preserve cultural resources. Before voting against the Becerra
amendment, Cunningham conceded that "we're fools if we don't learn other
languages in this country." But he insisted that language restrictions
are necessary because of "a propensity for more and more Americans not
to speak English" -- citing anecdotal evidence from his own Congressional
district in south San Diego.

Until this week, H.R.123 had appeared to be going nowhere. Its chief
sponsor, Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Mo.), recently died after a long bout with
cancer. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime backer of English-Only
legislation, apparently decided the measure could boost Republicans'
prospects in the 1996 election. As recently as May, Committee chairman
Bill Goodling (R-Pa.) had assured the Joint National Committee for
Languages that he would block the bill from reaching the House floor.
But Goodling did an unexplained about-face yesterday, along with Rep.
Steve Gunderson (R-Wisc.) and other members of the majority side who had
expressed reservations about H.R.123 during committee hearings.

In the Senate, Republicans have postponed three scheduled votes on a
companion measure, S.356, where support is weaker than on the House side
of the Capitol. Meanwhile, the Justice and Education departments have
spoken out in opposition. But President Clinton, who once signed a
similar measure as governor of Arkansas, has yet to commit himself
publicly on federal English-Only legislation.

 --Jim Crawford
 73261.1120compuserve.com

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