Senate vote endorses English as the ‘national language’
The Senate voted yesterday 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 by a vote of 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 to 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.
Only nine Senate Democrats voted for the amendment; one Republican, Senator Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, voted against it.
English-language debate has roiled American politics for decades, and
in some quarters, has been as controversial and important as the
long-debated amendment to ban flag burning.
The impact of the new
Senate language amendment was unclear even after its passage. The
language negating claims to multilingual services appears
straightforward. It also sets requirements that immigrants seeking US
citizenship know the English language and US history. The amendment
would require more thorough testing to demonstrate English-language
proficiency and knowledge of US history and customs like the Pledge of
Allegiance and the national anthem.
But its author, Senator James
Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, made two last-minute changes that some
opponents said would water down 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. And 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.
view, we had it watered down enough to make it acceptable,” said
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, one of the chief architects
of the Senate immigration bill.
But proimmigration groups and
some Democrats said the amendment would obliterate executive orders
issued by President Clinton that mandated the provision of multilingual
services and communications by a variety of federal agencies, and could
undermine court orders, agency regulations, civil service guidances,
and state and local ordinances that provide multilingual services.
complicating the picture, moments after approving the Inhofe amendment,
the Senate voted 58 to 39 to approve a competing amendment by Senator
Ken Salazar, Democrat of Colorado, declaring English the ”common
unifying language of the United States” but mandating 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.