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Dole Leads Latest Wave of "Official English" Fervor

Catherine Craddock

Senator and presidential hopeful Bob Dole addressed hundreds of fellow war veterans at the 77th national convention of the American Legion in Indianapolis on Labor Day.


"We must return as a people to the original concept of what it means to be an American," Dole told the cheering audience. For the Senate Majority Leader, that means amending the Constitution to make English the nation's official language. To the enthusiastic applause of the veterans in attendance, he expressed his support of several new bills that advocate just that.

The Kansas senator made his remarks in anticipation of four "Official English" bills scheduled for a hearing in the House of Representatives on October 18. The bills vary in detail but their intent is the same: Each aims to make English the official language of the U.S. government.

H.R. 739, the "Declaration of Official Language Act," sponsored by Toby Roth (R-WI), is by far the most sweeping of the four bills. It includes the following proposals: English would be the only language used in interactions between employees of the the government and U.S. citizens, English language proficiency would be a requirement for U.S. citizenship, it would eliminate bilingual education, and it would repeal the part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which provides bilingual ballots in areas where there are high populations of non-English speaking residents.

The "Official English" Tsunami

Jim Boulet Jr. is executive director of Virginia-based English First, one of the organizations lobbying to make English the offical language of the U.S. He says these bills were "designed to legislate common sense. We need a commonality in this country... There are laws to mandate multi-lingual activities," says Boulet. "If we believe English is important, let's put that into law."

According to Boulet, bilingual education is a disaster, and immigrant children have been denied their contribution by not being taught English effectively. "If these laws were passed that doesn't mean that it would be illegal to speak any other language. What we say is that the government should meet all citizens in English and teach our children to speak English."

Although the bills are riding what seems to be an unstoppable tsunami crashing through Congress, they do have their critics. The National Education Association, the National Council La Raza, the American Psychological Association and the Joint National Committee on Languages (JNCL) are just a few of the many groups claiming that these laws are unjust, unconstitutional, unnecessary and unrealistic.

Cynthia McMellan, of the JNCL, believes the bills would discriminate against those who don't speak English as a native language. "This legislation would in fact cause more segregation, and populations that want to learn English won't be able to without bilingual education programs," she says.

All critics of the pending legislation point out that "Official English" legislation is not only unnecessary-most immigrants learn English within a generation without any laws compelling them-it is unconstitutional. The courts have so far agreed. Arizona passed an English-only law similar to Roth's H.R. 739; it was ruled unconstitutional in 1990 by a federal district court for violating the first and fourth amendments of the Constitution.

"Official English" legislation in the United States is nothing new. In 1981, California Senator S.I. Hayakawa proposed an English-only amendment, and variations of it have been in Congress ever since. By June, 1992, sixteen states had declared English the official language. With the socially and fiscally conservative Congress, it is much more likely that one of the latest bills will now pass on a national level. And don't count on a veto by President Clinton. While Governor of Arkansas, Clinton signed a state "Official English" bill into law.

To learn more about "Official English" bills H.R. 123, H.R. 345, H.R. 739 and H.R. 1005, call the Joint National Commitee on Languages in Washington D.C.: 202/466-2666.

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