by Jayne Cannava
During the 2008 presidential campaign, a woman pointedly asked Republican candidate John McCain: “Why as an American do I have to push a button to speak English?” The crowd roared with applause. “I think you struck a nerve,” McCain replied, who added that “English must be learned by everybody.”
Polls continue to indicate that sentiment is shared by a huge majority of Americans, including immigrants and native born, yet the country has not designated English its official language.
Thirty state legislatures, however, have enacted English as their official language of government. Various congressional bills and amendments have also been offered in recent years to designate English as the nation’s official governmental language. This is in reaction, sad to say, to troubling signs that we are letting this priceless gift of unity, our common tongue, slip away.
One danger sign is a 2007 Pew Hispanic survey of Mexican migrants revealing that, among those residing in the U.S. for 6 to10 years, 25% spoke English “not well” or “not at all.” Pew also found that among those living in the U.S. for 15 or more years, 45% spoke English “not well or not at all.”
According to the U.S. Census, the number of people between 1990 and 2000 who said they speak English “not at all” or “not well” soared by 65% to total a whopping 11.9 million “linguistically isolated” households.
This month, the Justice Department celebrates the 10th anniversary of Executive Order 13166—an even greater problem that severely undermines English and fosters multilingualism.
Executive Order 13166 was signed by President Bill Clinton and unfortunately never repealed during the Bush Administration. It requires federal agencies and fund recipients to provide translations and interpreters for non-English speakers in their native language—at taxpayer expense.
This draconian executive order, by the way, is not federal law. It is a seriously flawed U.S. Department of Justice interpretation of civil rights law that contradicts over 30 years of court cases and has yet to be tested and found valid in court.
When Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights law, the impact of English fluency was never discussed or included in the meaning of “national origin” discrimination. The reason is self evident: A person can choose to learn a new language, but they can never change their national origin. Yet Justice Department bureaucrats continue to hang the threat of “national origin discrimination” over every federal, state and local government.
As one might well imagine, requiring translation services for dozens of the more than 300 languages spoken in our country is costing billions annually. As recipients of federal aid, cash-strapped states and localities are especially saddled with compliance problems affecting everything from police and fire departments to healthcare operations. This ten-year-old executive order is also resulting in vague, arbitrary and inconsistent compliance standards which impair efficient operations of government agencies and their private sector contractors.
“The need for official English appears in our newspapers every day—injuries in the workplace, lawsuits over miscalculations in hospitals, people who are unable to support their families—all because they can’t speak English,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said.
That’s why the new Congress that will be seated in January 2011 should the repeal of E.O. 13166 one of its top priorities.
Furthermore, regardless of what happens in the new Congress involving attempts at immigration reform legislation, the official English-in-government bill championed by Inhofe and other members deserves to be passed as stand-alone legislation. That will undo the ten-year mischief of E.O. 13166.