U.S. melting pot going from simmer to boil with English-only debate

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sun Jun 24 15:36:32 UTC 2007

U.S. melting pot going from simmer to boil with English-only debate

June 23, 2007 - 14:47


WASHINGTON (CP) - It caused quite a stir at first in a popular south
Philadelphia cheese steak joint. The sign telling customers "This is
America: When ordering please speak English" hit a nerve, one way or
another, with nearly everyone who walked in the door. A year later, it's
still posted - much to the chagrin of rights groups who tried to get it
taken down. "We never did anything illegal, we never violated anyone's
rights," says Jimmy Reds, who has worked at Geno's Steaks for 30 years.
"It's an overwhelming opinion in the United States. When you come here, you
learn the language," he says in a distinct Philly accent.

That view is becoming more pronounced across the United States where
politicians are grappling with national legislation to deal with millions of
illegal immigrants. The push toward making English the country's official
language is gaining traction. The melting pot has gone from simmer to
boil.And it worries linguists and free speech activists who say there's a
nasty undercurrent of hostility. "It was a stalking horse for immigration,"
says Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at the University of
California, Berkley. "Now it's a tin can tied to its tail." "This is a bad
cure for a non-existent disease. Saying English is in trouble is like saying
crab grass is an endangered species. I think it's deeply disingenuous."

There is no federal law at present that says English is the official
national language of the United States. Yet polls suggest most Americans
support having such legislation - 83 per cent in a Zogby International
survey released in May. Thirty states have adopted an English-language
policy, three in the last eight months alone. Another 14 states have bills
pending. Local jurisdictions are jumping aboard. The latest spike, analysts
say, can be traced to the emotional debate over illegal migrants, mostly
Hispanics from Mexico and Central America, who are spreading out across the
country after primarily settling in border states. It's making some people
nervous. Hispanics, at more than 14 per cent of the U.S. population, now
outnumber blacks as the largest minority.

Their numbers are reflected in a country where there are dozens of
Spanish-language TV channels, and Dora the Explorer is a bilingual hero for
pre-schoolers, Hispanic and Anglo. Major service companies routinely tell
callers to press 1 for English and 2 for Spanish. Hispanics make up less
than one per cent of the tiny village of Hampshire, Ill., population 4,400.
Yet Hampshire decided in April to declare English the official language for
government business. There are exceptions, like a health crisis or public
safety announcements, when information would be provided in Spanish and
other languages. "We are smack dab in the middle of the country which has
always been English," says village president Jeff Magnussen, who notes that
translation fees can be prohibitive at 22 cents a word.

Hampshire wanted to "hedge against ethnic groups moving in future," he says.
"We want to set the bar. We're not helping people learn the language if we
constantly communicate in their native tongue." Now a Senate measure in the
massive immigration overhaul - one granting a path to citizenship for
illegals that many critics view as an unwelcome amnesty - would make English
the official national language of the U.S. government. It doesn't prohibit
dispensing information in other languages but says there's no right to
expect those services except where required by federal law.Another amendment
in the same bill, however, notes the importance of English but states it
should not affect the provision of multilingual services. The discrepancy
remains to be resolved.

The debate is raising alarm bells for activists who worry people who don't
understand English could be denied full access to key government
information. But the measure is popular among the Republican candidates for
the 2008 presidential nomination. And it's a major coup for a core
contingent lobbying since the 1980s for a unifying language. "It's not
English-only," insists Mauro Mujica, chairman of U.S. English Inc., a
citizen action group that claims some 1.8 million members and has helped
local governments draw up ordinances. "I would be the first one to be
against English-only," says Mujica, an immigrant from Chile who said he
learned English before arriving to study at Columbia.

"I speak Spanish with my American-born wife, with my kids." "But the
government should function essentially in English. It would send a message
to people com ing to this country that they have to learn English." Nunberg,
for one, thinks that's bunk. Few have a problem with an English language
requirement for citizenship, he says. The problem comes with "the
implication that we have to coerce people." "The message is immigrants don't
want to become American. It's a lie." Linguist Geoffrey Pullum, who teaches
at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says there's no  point to the
tough Senate amendment except to "insult and denigrate" ethnic groups. He
thinks it's "an extra stupid idea" to legislate English as the official
language and leave it open to challenge.

"If you were a real committed linguistic bigot, you don't want this a matter
of law. It could be voted down in one day." The tide toward a national
English law has been in remission for about a decade, after Republicans who
controlled Congress in the 1990s backed down for fear of alienating Hispanic
voters. James Crawford, president of the Institute for Language and
Education Policy in Silver Spring, Md., says the tide started turning again
last year as the immigration debate began in earnest on Capitol Hill.

"It simply flares up and politicians tend to exploit it," says Crawford.
"It's just a raw expression of xenophobia." "The demographic data shows
immigrants are learning English faster than any group in the past. It's
become much harder to isolate yourself." What's critical, he says, is
cutting the years-long waiting lists for English as a second language
classes in many states. So many people want them in New York that the city
holds a lottery. Mujica, too, is upset that governments put so few resources
into English programs. "We know we're getting immigrants every day. Why
aren't we helping them?" President George W. Bush, under attack from the
political right for his bid to offer a permanent home to many illegal
immigrants, has stressed the ability of the United States to assimilate

"The key to unlocking the full promise of America is the ability to read,
write and speak English," he said last week. "And so the bill affirms that
English is the language of our land. And the bill will expand opportunities
to help new immigrants learn our language and the shared ideals that make us
all Americans." California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, an immigrant from
Austria, has taken some flak for calling on the Hispanic community to turn
off their Spanish channels and start learning English. For Reds, at Geno's
in Philadelphia, it's all pretty simple. "I shouldn't have to speak 18
different languages." He says a lot of his customers agree, including
Canadian hockey buffs who hit the town to watch their northern teams take on
Flyers. "They love us," he said. "We get a lot of Canadians down here
complaining about the dual languages at home. They're not as happy as your
government would like to think."
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