Congress’ standoff over immigration legislation flared into emotional rhetoric Wednesday over a proposal in the House of Representatives’ proposed bill to make English the nation’s official language.
A Hispanic lawmaker said that was “code for official discrimination.”
Democratic Rep. Ruben Hinojosa lashed out at Republicans during a House hearing on the proposal, saying the effort was designed by the House majority to “derail comprehensive immigration reform and fan the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment before the election.”
Hinojosa, who grew up in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, said he was among children who were spanked and punished for speaking Spanish in school. He noted a recent case of a Kansas student who was suspended from school for speaking in Spanish to a friend in a hallway.
Hinojosa said the hearing was particularly troublesome considering a government report that found the Department of Education has not devised sufficient tools for schools to assess how well students with limited English perform. Hinojosa released the report by the Government Accountability Office after the hearing.
“Rather than focus on an issue that divides this country, we should have focused on how we can help our children learn English,” he said.
Message to newcomers
Supporters of the English language proposal said specifying English as the official language would send a message to newcomers to learn it.
“We have never been and no serious person is suggesting that we become an English-only nation,” said Mauro Mujica, U.S. English Inc. board chairman, which promotes English as a national language. “But the American people decidedly do not want us to become an English- optional nation.”
Rep. Mark Souder, a Republican, said without an organized official language, “We are all going to descend into chaos.” He said knowledge of English should be a requirement for immigrants seeking permission to work in the United States.
“If you are going to come to America, then learn our language,” he said.
The House and Senate have approved separate immigration bills but have refused to meet to negotiate compromise legislation. The House leaves for summer recess this week, and the Senate takes its August break at the end of next week. Elections for the next Congress are Nov. 7.
The Senate version of the immigration bill declares that English is the “national language” of the United States. That bill also contains a provision that simply states English is the “common and unifying language” of the United States.
In debating the renewal to the Voting Rights Act this month, however, the House voted to uphold a federal requirement that certain communities provide ballots in languages other than English.
Misgivings in the GOP
Republicans have had misgivings about how their position on immigration might affect President Bush’s efforts to bring more Hispanics into the party. The coming election season, which usually kicks off after Labor Day, has made immigration a sticky issue for those with competitive races.
Wednesday’s hearing by a subcommittee of the Education and Workforce Committee was one of about a dozen held this month on immigration. The House has held most of them to build opposition to provisions in the Senate bill, which would provide millions of illegal immigrants a chance to become American citizens.
The House bill emphasizes an enforcement approach, including subjecting all immigrants illegally in the country to felony prosecution. Many conservatives are pushing for legislation that would put enforcement first, but Bush has asked for a comprehensive immigration bill.