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Know Your Rights
Source: Queens Chronicle
Subject: Immigration
Type: Media Coverage

Local Debate Centers On National Language

“Americans are bound together by our shared ideals, an appreciation of our history, respect for the flag we fly and an ability to speak and write the English language.” 

These words, spoken by President Bush during his May 15 speech and repeated during his Saturday radio address could serve as a soundtrack to last week’s moves in the Senate to make English the national language.

Two differing amendments to the immigration bill were passed last Thursday: One that makes English the “national” language, and the other the “common and unifying” language of the United States.

The addition of these clauses elicited impassioned responses on the Senate floor—Democratic leader Sen. Harry Reid called the idea of the more stringent amendment racist. 

Here in the most ethnically diverse county in the nation—responses are mixed. Some immigrant advocates deplore the idea, others find it harmless. Politicians also vary in their responses. The two who had an official say—Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Charles Schumer—both voted against declaring English the “national” language, while supporting the “common and unifying” idea. 

Two immigrant advocate groups offered opposing viewpoints on the implications of a national language. 

“The amendment is a mistake and is bad public policy for a number of reasons,” began Andrew Friedman, co- director of Make the Road by Walking, an immigrant advocacy group serving Brooklyn and Queens. 

He was referring to the first amendment, which was introduced by Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, that passed in a 63 to 34 vote. The amendment won’t have any effect on standing federal laws, such as the Voting Rights Act, which ensures voting materials be available in minority languages.

The amendment indicates however, that residents don’t have “a right, entitlement or claim to have the government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services or provide materials in any language other than English.” 

This, Friedman said, is a bit of a slippery slope. He fears it could keep foreign speakers—immigrants and citizens alike—from effectively reporting crimes or communicating with schools on issues of critical importance. “It really opens the door for discrimination against the people who are still in the process of learning English,” he said. 

Others view the proposals as less of a threat. Anthony Meloni, director of the Astoria based Immigrant Advocacy Services, thinks declaring a national language won’t significantly curb services for immigrants. The amendments aren’t likely to have much legal clout, either, he said. 

Meloni—whose group served people from 92 different nations last year—isn’t wholly opposed to the idea of a national language as a concept either. “In the larger picture, it certainly makes sense to have one language,” he said. 

The second amendment—introduced by Colorado Democrat Sen. Ken Salazar, to declaring English the “common and unifying language” of the United States, passed 58 to 39. It doesn’t impact existing laws and is largely symbolic. It is also more acceptable to advocates like Friedman, because it omits the language that could limit services. 

Congressman Joseph Crowley, who represents large immigrant populations in Jackson Heights and Corona, would also prefer a common and unifying language, over a national one, which he considers sort of “mean spirited,” according to his spokesman, Rohit Mahajan. 

He continued, “We think the components of a successful immigration bill are border security, a path to earned citizenship and a guest worker visa program,” adding that a language amendment is neither a vital component nor a deal breaker. 

Often the lone dissenter in a chorus of Democrat voices, Republican City Councilman Dennis Gallagher of Middle Village, has a well defined opinion on the language of the government. 

“I feel strongly that English should be the official language or the national langauge,” he said. Gallagher, who strongly opposed a City Council bill earlier this year to enhance translation services for New York schools, thinks promoting multiple languages in government is a “step in the wrong direction.” 

He is, however, in favor of spending money to help immigrants learn English.