Skip to content
Know Your Rights
Source: Tom Paine
Subject: Immigration
Type: Media Coverage

English Anxiety

Andrew Friedman is a fellow of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy and co-director of Make the Road by Walking.

In what looked a little like campaigning, President George W. Bush traveled the country last week advocating that immigrants learn English, civics and history. Speaking from Omaha, The New York Times  reports  the president argued for a single, "national" language: "One aspect of making sure we have an immigration system that works, that’s orderly and fair, is to actively reach out and help people assimilate into our country. That means learn the values and history and language of America."

But try as he might, simply snapping his fingers and calling for all Americans to suddenly speak the same language won’t make it so—especially when Bush’s words aren’t coupled with a plan to fund language acquisition classes. President Bush is missing some important logic steps here: people in this deliberately diverse country will always speak languages other than English, and creating a common system of communication is a process that needs to be well planned and well funded, not just well campaigned.

Despite the president’s rhetoric about the importance of learning English, a funny thing happened on the walk from the White House to Congress: absent from the Senate’s whirlwind debate over immigration reform was any commitment to fund English language learning programs. Currently English as a Second Language classes across the nation are over-enrolled and public policy fails to support even the most industrious immigrants’ efforts to learn English. In only one example, a recent study by the New York Immigration Coalition found that over 90 percent of the demand for English language classes went unmet in New York City.

To some Americans, government-funded English classes might sound like a call to pour more of their tax dollars into causes that don’t actually better their own lives. Yet it turns out investing in English classes is good for everyone’s bottom line. A recent study by the Urban Institute  found that immigrant households in which the head of household speaks little English pay approximately $16,000 less in taxes each year than households in which the head of the household comfortably speaks English. Simply put, the revenue gain here to the nation at large is significantly greater than the cost of English classes.

Instead of facilitating integration, senators are trying to turn back the clock on decades of civil rights progress, hamstringing the effectiveness of local government in the process. The Civil Rights Act sought to create an equitable and inclusive government by prohibiting many forms of discrimination. One provision of the Act required that government-funded services be provided in multiple languages, ensuring that government is able to provide accessible and effective services for everyone and that all Americans, regardless of national origin, could benefit from the programs their tax dollars support.

During the Senate’s immigration debate, however, senators turned their back on this legacy by voting 63-34 in favor of an amendment, offered by Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, to make English the "national" language of the United States. But here’s the real catch: the amendment states that no one has the right to demand that government services be provided in any language other than English.

Congress and the president’s push for English-only services is both impractical and potentially dangerous. Throughout this country, where millions are still in the process of learning English, it is simply impossible to govern effectively without providing interpretation or translation services. How can the police respond to a 911 call reporting a crime-in-progress from a U.S. citizen who recently arrived from Puerto Rico if the operator cannot find anyone who can speak Spanish?

Moreover, it is impossible for cities and states to provide adequate services in emergencies without the abilty to communicate with those who are most at risk. In Lawrence, Mass., for example, 72 percent of the population is Hispanic. After severe flooding hit the town last month, local authorities had only English informational pamphlets and applications available for those who needed to apply for state and federal disaster aid. The language barrier in Lawrence is slowing flood recovery. In larger cities, particularly those that have several common languages, it will be even more difficult to provide sufficient translation services in case of an emergency.

Meanwhile, far from inside-the-beltway politics, some local governments are doing what it takes to effectively represent all of their constituents, to honor America’s diversity, and to recognize that language acquisition is a process. For example, New York’s Department of Health recently proposed new regulations that would require hospitals to ensure equal access to vital health services for New Yorkers who are still learning English.

Unfortunately, the majority of state and local government agencies in New York, and around the country, remain wholly unprepared to provide effective service to millions of Americans who are still learning English. If New York’s Department of Health and Welfare Centers need to provide translation services, what about the police and other government agencies? And if this is a problem in New York City, who’s to say the same sorts of issues don’t exist in Ogden, Utah, or Atlanta , Georgia?

Anyone who works with immigrants knows that they want nothing more than to learn English. They know it is their ticket to participating more fully in their communities and in the economy, and to making the better life for their children that motivated their decision to come here in the first place. As a fact sheet  released this week by the Pew Hispanic Center confirms, "Hispanics by a large margin believe that immigrants have to speak English to be a part of American society and even more so that English should be taught to the children of immigrants."

Despite the demagoguery and nativism coming out of Washington, D.C., state and city governments can do better. This country must move beyond putting out fires on this issue. Expanding language assistance services promotes equitable and effective government. Increasing accessible English classes promotes integration and reduces the need for translation and interpretation services over the long haul. Effective government, on the city, state, and federal levels, simply must be able to communicate effectively with everyone in this country—not just some of us.