Last week, Congressman John Conyers Jr. (D- MI) livened up a House Judiciary Committee meeting. “Well, here we are again on the last day of the session before we return to our districts,” he said – in Spanish. Conyers gave his entire statement en español at a hearing on the English Language Unity Act.
The English Language Unity Act is a proposal to make English the official language of the United States. It would require the federal government to conduct business only in English, and naturalization candidates to understand the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Sponsor Steve King (R – IA) says it will help immigrants assimilate and promote national unity. Hardly. The “English-Only” bill is bad policy, bad strategy, and likely unconstitutional.
First of all, it’s hard to believe that House Republicans had nothing better to do than debate the merits of English as our official language. Consider what Congress did not do before adjourning for summer recess. They did not pass a farm bill. They did not pass a post office bill. They did not reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. The idea that making English our official language was more important than any of these matters is mind-boggling.
Secondly, English is the de facto official language of the U.S. – even among immigrants. An April study by the Pew Center found that, the longer Spanish-speaking immigrants are in the country, the more likely it is that English becomes their dominant language. A whopping 87 percent of Hispanics believe that immigrants need to learn English in order to succeed.
In spotlighting King’s English-Only proposal last week, the GOP missed an opportunity for positive messaging to the Latino community. Ted Cruz achieved a runoff victory in Texas, and is poised to become the next Hispanic senator. While this is worth trumpeting, Republicans instead fell back into their habit of sending an exclusionary message to Latinos and immigrants.
The English-Only bill also raises Constitutional concerns. In Meyer v. Nebraska (1923), the Supreme Court ruled that the desire to ensure that immigrants to this country learn and speak English “cannot be coerced by methods which conflict with the Constitution – a desirable end cannot be promoted by prohibited means.” Yet the English-only bill would prevent non-English speakers from interacting with the government, a violation of their First Amendment right to petition the government for redress of grievances, and interfere with their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process as well.
Currently the citizenship test requires a basic understanding of English, and senior citizens are allowed to seek an exemption. King’s proposal that prospective citizens must understand the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence seems an attempt to prevent people from becoming citizens. How many native-born Americans can say they understand the scope and impact of these documents?
There are many naturalized Americans who are simply more comfortable in their native tongue than in English. They should be able to have a ballot in their own language, if necessary, or request an interpreter when dealing with a government agency. If King really wants to help people assimilate and learn English, he should propose more funding for ESL programs.
King told the Huffington Post that it is “offensive” that anyone would think his bill has racist overtones. But this is a man who has compared immigrants to livestock and dogs, called immigration a “slow-motion Holocaust,” and wonders whether Obama was born in Kenya.
In his Spanish-language testimony, Congressman Conyers spoke out against discrimination against Asian and Latino immigrants. “One day our nation will look back on this period with shame and regret,” he said. Sadly, he is correct. King’s English-Only measure is pointless, unnecessary, and thoroughly divisive.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.