ACLU Backgrounder on English Only Policies in Congress

Document Date: December 10, 2007

In 2006 the Senate took up an amendment to make English the national language in connection with the Comprehensive Immigration Reform (“CIR”) Act. The amendment, offered by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), passed the Senate by a vote of 62 to 35. This amendment was substantially diluted by the subsequent passage of an alternative amendment by Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO) which declared English as the “common and unifying language of the United States.” Both amendments, largely symbolic in nature, died when the Senate failed to pass CIR. Similar amendments were introduced and passed in the 2007 version of the CIR, which also failed to become law. Nonetheless, the fact that nearly two-thirds of the Senate voted to make English the national language illustrates the intense, and unfortunately misguided, fervor surrounding the English-only debate.

More recently Congress considered the English-only issue in the context of enforcement of employment discrimination laws. In October 2007 the Senate passed a provision in the Departments of Commerce and Justice, and Science, and Related Agencies (“CJS”) appropriations bill aimed at prohibiting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) from suing employers that require workers to speak only English while on the job, even when not justified by business necessity. Last month tensions boiled over between Democratic Leadership and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus when the House passed a motion to instruct the CJS conferees to adopt the English-only provision from the Senate bill (H.R. 3093, sec. 527). The GOP-offered motion garnered the support of 36 House Democrats, including several Congressional Black Caucus members and four House committee chairs. Shortly before Thanksgiving, CJS conference negotiations broke down.

These recent votes on English-only reveal the divide among Democrats on language and immigration-related issues, many of whom are anxious about being labeled soft on immigration. Congress needs to understand that approximately 45 million people in the U.S. (17.5 percent of the population) speak a language other than English in the home.[1] The vast majority of these individuals are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents.[2]

English-only policies stigmatize U.S. workers including Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Africans, Caribbeans, Native Americans, and other language minority groups. These hardworking employees should not be fired just because they are speaking a language other than English, so long as they are competently executing their job duties.

It is unfortunate that those in Congress pushing English-only policies have not focused on expanding adult literacy and English as a Second Language (“ESL”) classes nationwide. Across the country, community colleges and ESL providers report overcrowded classes and long waitlists, with demand far exceeding supply. This has been confirmed by the Department of Education. Millions of non-English speakers are eager to learn English. Despite the undisputed evidence of overwhelming demand, the federal government continues to devote a paltry amount of resources to adult literacy and ESL classes.

As we enter into a major election year, we need to prepare for more English-only attacks at the local, state, and federal levels. We need to stand united and vigilant to protect the civil rights of all language minorities.

[1] Census 2000 Brief. Oct. 2003. p. 2.

[2] Ibid, p. 3.

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