WASHINGTON – Rep. John Conyers didn’t speak a word of English at Thursday’s hearing on a bill to make English the official language of the nation, but he still made his opinion of the bill crystal clear.
The Michigan Democrat read his opening remarks entirely in Spanish, telling the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, according to a translation from his office, “What unites us is not a language, but shared ideals that make America the great and unique country it is.”
It was the opening salvo in another round of a fight that has been going on for nearly 20 years, according to one witness, the fight to make English the official language of the federal government.
Supporters of the bill said that having one official language would promote national unity, clarity and save money.
“The federal government should not be using borrowed taxpayer dollars in order to promote multilingualism,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, the lead sponsor of the bill. “Just bring us all together under English.”
But opponents argue that the bill is unnecessary and would further divide the country rather than unite it.
“There is no need for this bill as evidenced by the 97 percent of Americans that speak English,” said Rep. Charles A. Gonzalez, D-Texas.
“This country is about inclusion, not exclusion,” said Florida state Sen. Rene Garcia, a Republican who represents part of Miami-Dade County. “It will exclude a lot of my constituents.”
The English Language Unity Act of 2011 says that most “official functions of the government of the U.S. shall be conducted in English.” The bill includes exemptions for the teaching of languages, for national security and foreign relations, for public health and safety and to protect the rights of criminal defendants or victims.
“We’re surely not going to put anyone before a court of law that does not understand the charges against them,” King said after Thursday’s hearing.
But Garcia and others said an English-only law would not be fair to immigrants and others who do not speak the language, noting that even those who want to learn English often have to get on a waiting list to do so.
They said that requiring all government business to be done in English would affect everything from a person’s ability to get a driver’s license to their ability to vote.
But Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale, argued that governments “can’t possibly print in every language … but if we have one common language, that brings us all together like very few other things can.”
Franks, the chairman of the subcommittee, used Conyers’ opening statement as proof of the need for a common language, saying the Spanish statement left him confused. He said the common-language requirement is not meant to exclude people, but “to try to include everyone.”
Franks told the story of his wife, an immigrant to the U.S. who lived in the Philippines until she was 11 but who now speaks four languages, including English. Her family attributes much of their success here to their priority on becoming proficient in English shortly after they arrived, he said.
“My father learned English by going to school in English,” said King, who grew up in a German-speaking home. “They didn’t give bilingual courses that taught him half the time in German, half the time in English.”
Supporters noted that 31 states, including Arizona, have already declared English the official language of the state. Arizona’s Proposition 103 passed with an overwhelming 74 percent of the vote in 2006, according to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.
“I just believe, with all of my heart, that the best thing we can do as a country is to make sure that we communicate well with each other,” Franks said. “And that means a standardized language.”