Senate’s definition of English as ‘national language’ ambiguous


TUCSON, Ariz. – Signs in English and Spanish greeted Keith D’Amico on Friday as he went to replace his lost Social Security card, letting him know he was in the right place, and rankling his sensibilities.

“I think they should have things in English (only),” D’Amico said. “People come to the United States to find freedom and better jobs, and I think they should learn our language – English.”

A U.S. Senate vote Thursday to make English the national language tapped into that sentiment, making a clear symbolic statement.

But Friday, experts and advocates struggled to figure out what the practical results of the national language amendment would be. Some said it might fall to the courts to decide.

Proponents of the amendment have said that if it does become law as part of a larger immigration reform compromise, it would have no impact on federal services now offered. The legislation, proponents say, would only underscore English’s pre-eminence here.

But Raul Gonzalez, legislative director for National Council of La Raza, said he worries that it would prevent people with limited English skills from getting help with basic services.

He points to an executive order signed while Bill Clinton was president, requiring federal agencies to offer language assistance when possible to their clients. Gonzalez worries that Clinton provision could be overturned by the legislation.

“I think it is more than symbolism,” Gonzalez said. “This amendment is so vague no one can give us a straight answer of its effects.”

Fred Tsao, the policy director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said the amendment is downright confusing. He fears that teasing out the proposed law’s meaning could be tumultuous.

“I could see this ending up in massive litigation while the different interests go about trying to figure out just what this law means,” Tsao said.

One provision of the amendment deals with citizenship requirements. Current law requires applicants to know “ordinary usage of the English language,” but gives immigration officers discretion about how much English that is, and whether applicants must read aloud, write or simply converse.

The amendment calls for a redesign of the citizenship test that would require demonstration not only of a “sufficient understanding of the English language for usage in everyday life,” but put greater emphasis on civics knowledge. Tsao believes that is a call to make the entire test more difficult.

The amendment also would apply that standard to immigrants seeking permanent residency, or a green card.

Another provision says that no person has the right to federal services, documents or materials in another language. But it does not bar government use of other languages, and it would not change current laws that provide for multilingual ballots, courtroom interpreters or other language help.

Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, was doubtful the U.S. Senate proposal would have significant impact. He noted the amendment would not bar the use of foreign languages by federal agencies.

“Most of the agencies that use languages other than English do because it is expeditious for their missions,” Suro said.