Senate Votes by Two-Thirds Majority To Make English the ‘National Language’ of America
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WASHINGTON – The Senate voted to make English the “national language” of America as part of legislation overhauling immigration policy.
The measure, approved by a vote of 63-34, 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.
“I don’t see how you can unify the United States of America unless we have a national language,” Senator Alexander, a Republican of Tennessee, said. “English is part of our national identity. It’s part of our spirit. It’s part of our blood. It’s part of who we are.”
The amendment was added to legislation senators are considering that would strengthen border security, create a new guest-worker program and allow an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status.
Opponents of the language provision said it would cause employees of the federal government to avoid using languages other than English even in warning signs or emergency communications for fear of breaking the law.
The amendment would create “an obstacle for those who are trying to achieve public safety and public health,” Senator Durbin, a Democrat of Illinois, said. “Why do we need to do this?”
Consideration of the English-language amendment was held up for a day as lawmakers negotiated its wording. The final version, sponsored by Senator Inhofe, a Republican of Oklahoma, calls for making English the “national” language, which was a change from an earlier draft that termed it the “official” language.
A competing amendment offered by Senator Salazar, a Democrat of Colorado, that would make English the “common and unifying language of America” was also adopted, by a vote of 58-39. Mr. Salazar said Mr. Inhofe’s proposal would “create division within the country” by addressing “a problem that does not exist.”
The Inhofe amendment states that there is no right to receive government documents or services in other languages, and the government can’t be sued for not providing foreign language services, “unless otherwise authorized or provided by law.”
The amendment also sets requirements that immigrants seeking American citizenship know the English language and American history.
President Bush, in a Monday primetime address to the country on immigration, said undocumented immigrants seeking legal status should be required to learn English and that the common language is the key to opportunity in America.
“English allows newcomers to go from picking crops to opening a grocery, from cleaning offices to running offices,” Mr. Bush said.
Mexico plans to send a diplomatic note to the American government today outlining concerns over the Senate’s immigration legislation, Foreign Relations Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez said.
While considering amendments to the legislation during the past four days, lawmakers also have approved limiting the size of the guest-worker program to 200,000 visas a year and endorsed building 350 miles of fencing along the America-Mexico border.
The Senate has rejected amendments that would have eliminated the guest-worker program and removed the path to legal status for those in America illegally.
The Senate today rejected, by a vote of 50-49, a proposal to prevent undocumented workers from receiving Social Security benefits for any contributions they made to the retirement system before they acquire legal status. Opponents said it would take benefits away from people who regularly paid taxes into the system.
“If these immigrants earned it they should receive it like everyone else,” Senator Kennedy, a Democrat of Massachusetts, said.
The Senate also voted 56-43 to overturn the results of the last vote yesterday, when lawmakers approved by 50-48 an amendment that would require undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status through their employers.
Supporters of today’s amendment said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to “self-petition” for legal status so they couldn’t be possibly kept in limbo by unscrupulous employers.
“The issue of not having the immigrant subject to the control of the employer is an important one to see to that the immigrant is treated fairly,” Senator Specter, a Republican of Pennsylvania, said.
The Senate yesterday approved a provision to delay until June 1, 2009, a requirement that American citizens have a passport or similar document when traveling to Mexico or Canada.
Senate Majority Leader Frist, a Republican of Tennessee, has said the Senate will complete work on the immigration legislation by the end of the month.
Legislation passed by the Senate will have to be reconciled with a House measure passed last year that backs 700 miles of fencing and doesn’t address a work program or legalization of undocumented immigrants.
Congress last passed such broad immigration legislation in 1986 when it approved a program that granted legal status to as many as 3 million undocumented immigrants and criminalized the hiring of those in America illegally.