More than one lingo? Move to declare English official language gains

October 15, 1995|By Kerry A. White

A CAMPAIGN to declare English the official national language is gaining momentum in the Republican-led Congress and has become a hot political topic for Washington's heavy hitters and 1996 presidential hopefuls.

While the majority of Americans are proficient in English, there has never been a federal law establishing English as the official language of the United States. And yet the language has survived through more than nearly 400 years of immigration.

According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of foreign-born people in the United States has been growing at a record pace. More than 22.6 million people in this country -- 8.7 percent -- are immigrants. From 1990 to 1994, nearly as many immigrants entered the country -- 4.5 million -- as did during all of the 1970s.

Those numbers -- paired with an overall economic uncertainty among Americans -- have pushed the movement outside of political circles into the realm of average Americans.

According to a poll published in September by U.S. News and World Report, 73 percent of Americans think English should be the official language. Polls conducted by USA Today, the Houston Chronicle and the San Francisco Chronicle in recent months have found similar support for an official national language.

"America is no longer a melting pot; it's a tossed salad," says Rep. Toby Roth, a Republican from Wisconsin, who is backing one of the bills on Capitol Hill. "People in this country are breaking off into groups. We're one nation, one people. We need to strengthen the common bond that holds us together, and that's language."

The Republican-led campaign raises complex questions about immigration, the economy and diversity in America. It comes at a time when American attitudes toward immigrants -- legal and illegal -- seem to be souring.

Sen. Bob Dole, the GOP's leading presidential aspirant, spotlighted the issue in a Labor Day speech when he joined fellow Republicans Patrick J. Buchanan, Richard Lugar, Pete Wilson and House Speaker Newt Gingrich in calling for English to become the official government language.

Speaking to the national convention of the American Legion in Indianapolis, Mr. Dole said: "With all the divisive forces tearing at our country, we need the glue of language to help hold us together. If we want to ensure that all our children have the same opportunities in life, alternative language education should stop and English should be acknowledged once and for all as the official language of the United States."

But opponents argue that the proposals to make English the official national language are punitive and divisive.

Clinton's criticism

President Clinton is one such critic. In a Sept. 28 address to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Mr. Clinton rejected proposals to make English the national language and said Americans should embrace multiculturalism.

"Of course English is the official language of the United States," Mr. Clinton told a cheering audience at the Washington Hilton Hotel. "The issue is not whether English is our language. The issue is whether or not we are going to value the culture, the traditions of everybody."

Mr. Clinton has been spending much time this fall defending immigration.

"We should never, ever, ever permit ourselves to get into a position where we forget that almost everybody here came from somewhere else, and that America is a set of ideas and values and convictions that make us strong," he said in a Labor Day speech in California.

In 1987, as governor of Arkansas, Mr. Clinton signed into law a bill declaring English the official language of that state. In 1992, during the presidential campaign, Mr. Clinton was questioned about the bill, and said he "probably shouldn't have signed" it.

"I agreed to sign it only after we changed the law to make it clearer that it would not affect bilingual education, something that I have always strongly supported," he said at a meeting of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Although White House aides insist Mr. Clinton's actions as governor are being "misconstrued," the Arkansas bill is likely to haunt him as the 1996 presidential election nears.

Efforts to make English the official language in Maryland have not been popular with the state's governors. Gov. Parris N. Glendening threatened to veto an official-English measure in May, calling such legislation "punitive" and discouraging to immigrants who want to live and work in Maryland. And last year, Gov. William Donald Schaefer vetoed a version of official-English -- one of his last acts in office.

Opponents of the proposed federal legislation say it fails to acknowledge that many immigrants strongly desire to learn English, but there is a shortage of English instruction.

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