“The success of our country depends upon helping newcomers assimilate into our society, and embrace our common identity as Americans,” President Bush declared in his May 15 Oval Office address on immigration reform. “English allows newcomers to go from picking crops to opening a grocery, from cleaning offices to running offices, from a life of low-paying jobs to a diploma, a career, and a home of their own.”
As the son of legal, Costa Rican immigrants whose mother learned English, taught in the Los Angeles city schools, and earned a masters degree from Pepperdine University, I found the president’s words pertinent, touching, and heartwarming.
How crushing, then, to discover Bush’s remarks at jarring variance with federal policy. Rather than persuade immigrants to speak English and flourish–as my parents did, to their children’s ultimate benefit–the Bush administration actively steers immigrants away from English while actually prosecuting those who expect immigrants to speak America’s (and Earth’s) lingua franca.
From ballot boxes to hospitals, workplaces, and even the Internet, President Bush’s words and deeds are perpendicular to each other.
The Bush administration aggressively promotes multilingual voting. “The Civil Rights Division has made the vigorous enforcement of the  Voting Rights Act’s language-minority requirements one of its primary missions,” explained Rena J. Comisac, principal deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights, to the House Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee on May 4. “Since 2001, this administration has filed more minority language cases under sections 4 and 203 than in the entire previous 26 years in which these provisions have been applicable,” she bragged. But DOJ will not rest! “And the pace is accelerating,” Comisac continued, “with more cases filed and resolved in 2005 than in any previous year, breaking the previous record set in 2004 . . . The enforcement actions include cases in Florida, California, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington. Among these cases were the first suits ever filed under section 203 to protect Filipino and Vietnamese voters,” who vote in those tongues. “Our enforcement program shows the continuing need for the minority language provisions of the Voting Rights Act, and we support their reauthorization,” Comisac concluded. The Bush Administration thus supports legislation to extend multilingual voting through 2031.
Orange County California Supervisor Chris Norby testified at this hearing that under the VRA, he already “must provide translations in Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Korean.” Worse, he warned, “If these standards are left unchanged, after the 2010 Census, my county could be required to print ballots in Tagalog, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, and Farsi, depending on future immigration patterns.”
This is madness.
Will congressional candidates discuss Social Security’s pending insolvency in Punjabi? How well will Urdu speakers understand a presidential debate in 2012? Of course, if you are solely Tagalophonic, you typically cannot become naturalized. Except for older, longtime resident aliens, new citizens must read, write, and speak English, as U.S. Code Title 8, Section 1423 insists. So why on Earth are certifiably Anglophonic new Americans still receiving ballots in idioms they supposedly have superseded?
Producing non-English ballots, voter guides, and other documents is a costly, unfunded federal mandate. Los Angeles County spent $3.3 million in 2002 to inform voters in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Filipino. “There are at least 296 counties in 30 states now that are required to have such materials, and the number is growing rapidly,” says Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity.
President Bush reaffirmed President Clinton’s executive order that medical centers that accept federal money must provide free translators to foreign-language speakers. Non-compliance can constitute “national origin” discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It is expensive and cumbersome for health facilities that receive, say, Medicare reimbursements, to offer complimentary interpreters to non-English patients. Even if their relatives can handle such needs, federal bureaucrats still can make providers furnish translators gratis and file discrimination charges against those who don’t.
Bush’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) last September 21 sued Spring Sheet Metal Company of Rochester, N.Y., for $50,000 in damages, back wages, and pain-and-suffering compensation, for a Cuban-born ex-employee. He screamed “Discrimination!” after his dismissal for speaking Spanish at work. The firm argues its English-only policy helps laborers prevent accidents in a dynamic environment full of sharp, swiftly moving steel objects.
The EEOC last summer sued Highland Hospital, also in Rochester, after it punished five Cuban- and Puerto Rican–born housekeeping employees for conducting private, Spanish-language conversations in front of non-Spanish-speaking colleagues. To prevent a hostile work environment, Highland required English as the common, professional language. President Bush’s EEOC squeezed a $200,000 settlement out of Highland on May 9. “Employers need to heighten their awareness to language issues in the workplace,” said EEOC’s Spencer H. Lewis Jr., “especially as our nation’s labor force becomes increasingly more diverse.”
Bush’s hypocrisy is most vivid on his own website, www.WhiteHouse.gov. Click the español button and read what he did today . . . in Spanish. What incentive does this give Hispanic immigrants to learn English? Ninguno. None whatsoever.
Bilingual-education reform shows the only progress. The Heritage Foundation reports that relevant outlays have soared from $410 million in fiscal year 2001 to $816 million in FY 2006, a fearsome 99 percent increase. However, in 2002, the responsible unit’s name changed from the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs to today’s Office of English Language Acquisition. “No Child Left Behind is putting pressure on local school districts to abandon failed bilingual education programs in favor of English immersion,” says Ben Piper of Pro-English, a Virginia-based official-English advocacy group.
Step two in stopping America’s sprint up the Tower of Babel is to scrap divisive multilingualism and make government conduct official domestic business in English, with limited, commonsense exceptions (e.g., broadcasting Spanish-language tornado warnings and defending foreign criminal suspects in their native tongues).
This is sound policy and superb politics. According to a March 14–16 Zogby International poll, among 1,007 voters surveyed, 84 percent agree that America “should make English the official language of government operations with common-sense exceptions for things like diplomacy, assuring defendants’ rights in court, promoting tourism, etc.” Official English is staggeringly popular; 71 percent of Hispanics, 77 percent of blacks, 82 percent of Democrats, 86 percent of whites, and 91 percent of Republicans endorse the idea. (Error margin: +/- 3.2 percent.)
Step one is for President Bush to follow his assimilationist rhetoric and speak English out of just one side of his mouth.