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Posted by on May 19, 2006 in At TMV | 5 comments

Senate Votes For English As USA’s “National Language”

In a vote that’s sure to generate much debate outside of Congress, the U.S. Senate has voted to make English the United States’ “National Language.”

Question: will it matter? And, if so, how much? The Washington Post:

After an emotional debate fraught with symbolism, the Senate yesterday voted to make English the “national language” of the United States, declaring that no one has a right to federal communications or services in a language other than English except for those already guaranteed by law.

The measure, approved 63 to 34, directs the government to “preserve and enhance” the role of English, without altering current laws that require some government documents and services be provided in other languages. Opponents, however, said it could negate executive orders, regulations, civil service guidances and other multilingual ordinances not officially sanctioned by acts of Congress.

That vote, considered a defeat for immigration-rights advocates, was followed last night by an important victory: By 58 to 35, the Senate killed an amendment that would have blocked eventual citizenship for future immigrants who arrive under a temporary work. permit Democrats and Republicans agreed that the amendment would have destroyed the fragile, bipartisan coalition backing the Senate bill.

One tantalizing question: could the huge flap over the Star Spangled Banner being sung in Spanish have anything to do with it? Actually, in a way, yes. Although those who promoted that version of the national anthem insisted it wasn’t meant that way, it came across to some Americans as Spanish being rubbed in their faces. Declaring English the national language probably would have come about no matter what, but the controversy of the national anthem in Spanish made it a lot easier for many lawmakers to vote for.

But, as the AP notes, the Senate also seemed to be sending mixed signals:

Moments after the 63-34 vote, it decided to call the mother tongue a “common and unifying language.”

“You can’t have it both ways,” warned Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., a fan of “national” but not “common and unifying.” Two dozen senators disagreed and voted for both as the Senate lumbered toward an expected vote next week on a controversial immigration bill.

What’s at play? Voting constituencies versus ethnic sensibilities. And add to that a dash of opinion polls:

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called a proposal to make English the official language “racist” on the Senate floor yesterday.

“This amendment is racist. I think it’s directed basically to people who speak Spanish,” the Democrat said during the already tense debate over immigration reform.

Moments later, the Senate approved the measure on a 63-34 vote. Virtually all Republicans were joined by 11 Democrats to approve the largely symbolic amendment. Immediately following that vote, the Senate approved a second amendment, declaring on a 58-39 vote that English is the “common and unifying language.”

Such proposals enjoy overwhelming support among American voters.A poll by Zogby International earlier this year found that 84 percent of Americans say English should be the official language of government operations. The same poll found that 77 percent of Hispanics agree.

And it’s a bipartisan issue, according to the poll, which found that 92 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of Democrats approve making English the country’s official language.

Reid later clarified his remarks:

Mr. Reid’s charge of racism caused a stir of whispers in the Senate chamber and gallery, and Sen. James M. Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who offered the amendment, was clearly offended.

As Mr. Reid continued his floor speech, an aide passed him a note on a folded sheet of yellow legal paper. After reading the note, the Nevada Democrat tried to clarify his remarks.

“Even though I feel this amendment is unfair, I don’t in any way suggest that Jim Inhofe is a racist,” Mr. Reid said. “I don’t believe that at all. I just believe that this amendment has, to some people, that connotation — not that he’s a racist, but that the amendment is.”

It is a powderkeg issue — and I can say this first hand.

When I was a reporter on the San Diego Union, one series I assigned to do was on bilingual education in California. The vast majority of sources on both sides that I interviewed were easy enough to deal with and question, but there was on segment that almost instantly called me and the newspaper “racist” because we were looking into how well bilingual education actually fared. Language is a highly emotional issue — on both sides.

As the news stories suggest, even though some may forecast a kind of crackdown on the use of Spanish, this is unlikely to change things all that much. Those who hope Spanish will be virtually banned are bound to be disappointed — just as those who seemed to be hoping that Spanish would be all but officially declared the kind of unofficial co-language will be disappointed.

On the other hand, in politics symbolism does matter so the resolutions will at the least be official declarations that English is considered the main language of the U.S.

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