An estimated 21.1 percent of U.S. residents now speak a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s 63.2 million residents, approximately doubled since 1990 and tripled since 1980. Some members of Congress see this as a worrying sign or even a threat.
Rep. Steve King (R-IA4) and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) are two such members. Together they’ve introduced H.R. 997 and S. 678, the English Language Unity Act, in the House and Senate. The legislation would declare English the official language of the United States and require that all people attempting to become citizens show English language proficiency.
What supporters say
Supporters say the legislation would create a common bond and prevent miscommunication. They also note that 31 states have adopted English as the official language, including many Democrat-leaning states.
“There is no more unifying force in the world than a common form of communications currency,” King said in a press release announcing the bill. “Every sovereign nation state, including the Vatican, has at a minimum, an official language. It is essential that we make assimilation of our legal immigrants a top priority and learning English is an important first step in that process.
“The United States’ culturally diverse population is what makes our nation great, and what helps us move forward together as a society is the ability to communicate to one another,” said Inhofe in his own press release. “[The bill] declares English as the official language of the United States and will help set legal immigrants on a path to success as they integrate and work towards becoming citizens. As a nation built by immigrants, this legislation will strengthen the cords of unity that comes from sharing one vision and one official language.”
What opponents say
Opponents argue that the legislation is an attack on the melting pot diversity of both the languages and nationalities that make our country great, and that in practice English will always be far and away the predominant language in America whether or not it’s official.
President Obama, who has said when asked about the question that “I agree that immigrants should learn English,” said that a law was unnecessary and could even be hypocritical. Many Americans “go over to Europe, and all we can say is ‘merci beaucoup,’ ” Obama said. “Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English — they’ll learn English — you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about how can your child become bilingual. We should have every child speaking more than one language.”
The bill makes exceptions to permit federal government use of other languages in cases including national security, international relations, tourism, public safety and health, and “protecting the rights of victims.”
Odds of passage
The long-standing anti-immigration positions of the Republican party might create the impression that there is a groundswell of support for this type of legislation, but while the Senate bill has been gaining more cosponsors over the years, the House bill has actually consistently declined in recent years, as measured by cosponsors and bipartisanship. The current House bill has 90 cosponsors and no Democrats, representing a decrease and less bipartisanship than the version introduced in the previous Congress: 94 cosponsors, including two Democrats.
Going back further, the prior versions in Congress had even more cosponsors and were more bipartisan: 112 cosponsors, including four Democrats; before that 138 cosponsors, including seven Democrats; before that 153 cosponsors, including seven Democrats; before that 164 cosponsors, including six Democrats. None of the bills ever received a vote.
In the Senate, he seven cosponsors is more than the six cosponsors for the previous version, three cosponsors for the version before that, and again three cosponsors for the version before that. (All were Republican every year.) Those bills never received votes either.
The current legislation is pending before the House Education and the Workforce or House Judiciary Committees and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.