[lg policy] Editorial: English Only: The wrong kind of immigration reform

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Mar 23 13:41:50 UTC 2010

English Only: The wrong kind of immigration reform

America needs immigration reform. Many people from all sides of the
political sphere agree on this.But sadly, many calling for immigration
reform have errantly linked the reasonable goal of immigration reform
with the absurd desire to make English the exclusive language of our
nation. While at first it seems logical to force immigrants to
exclusively use our language, the ramifications of “English Only”
policies end up causing far more harm than good. Movements to further
enshrine English as our only language, like the H.R. 1228 currently
under consideration by our nation’s Congress, will be
counterproductive. The idea behind the English Only movement is that
English is the dominant language of our nation, our founding documents
were written in English and the majority of our culture and traditions
are based in English. As such, proponents claim we should make our
governments, national and local, deal only in English to ensure that
its supremacy remains unchallenged and that immigrants quickly learn

US-English.org, a leading proponent of declaring English as our
nation’s exclusive language, says, “Official English unites Americans,
who speak more than 322 languages, by providing a common means of
communication; it encourages immigrants to learn English in order to
use government services and participate in the democratic process; and
it defines a much-needed common sense language policy.” That all
sounds reasonable. Encouraging immigrants to learn English sounds like
a nice idea, but what really happens if an immigrant isn’t yet fluent?
Many of those government services are essential to everyone,
regardless of whether they speak English.

Should a person calling 911 be denied access to emergency services
because they don’t perfectly grasp English? Should a wife be denied
the ability to take part in the health decisions of her critically ill
husband because she can’t fully understand the doctors at an English
Only government-run hospital? Should parents be unable to talk to
their children’s teachers because the school is not allowed to hire

People who speak only one language often assume that people are only
capable of being totally fluent or completely ignorant of a language.
They fail to realize that there is a long and difficult intermediate
stage in the language-learning process, where you are able to
understand and speak enough to get by without yet achieving fluency.
Those of you who have studied a foreign language at a fairly high
level understand that while you could probably conduct business in
that second language, you would prefer to deal in your native tongue,
and the odds of making mistakes on a crucial government document would
be much higher were you denied access to English. Personally, I can
order food and ask for directions in Spanish, but I couldn’t, if
forced to, do my taxes in it.

The people we are denying these government services to are, in fact,
learning and want to be fluent in English. They just aren’t there yet.
The sorts of services the English Only movement seeks to deny
non-fluent English speakers access includes health services, social
welfare programs, ballots and driver’s license tests.

This also harms those of us who are fluent in English.

Simple question: Would you rather have an immigrant on the road who
passed a driver’s test written in Spanish or an immigrant who has no
license at all? Our society as a whole becomes less safe if a
substantial portion of our population is unable to communicate with
the government in a language it understands.

In Colorado, we amended our state Constitution to make English the
state’s only official language in 1988. Nationally, legislators are
trying to pass H.R. 1228, which would override President Clinton’s
executive order that provides services to people with “limited English

If a major wave of immigrants were coming here who truly didn’t want
to learn English, the English Only movement would have a case for
passing more of these laws. But recent census data indicates that 98
percent of Latino immigrants felt that it was “essential” that their
children understand English “perfectly.”

Clearly English will remain our nation’s dominant tongue for the
foreseeable future. Why should we discriminate against immigrants who
are still learning English and embitter them toward our language?

The English Only movement is a poisonous non-solution to our flawed
immigration system.

Editorials Editor Ian Bezek is a senior economics major. His column
appears Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to
letters at collegian.com.

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