WASHINGTON — New Mexico Democratic leaders today blasted U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici for supporting GOP presidential candidate Robert Dole, who says English should be declared the “official” U.S. language.

Although Domenici, a Republican, once voted against a Dole-supported ” English-only” proposal, Domenici currently serves as the Western states’ chairman of Dole’s campaign.

“The idea of ‘English Only’ or ‘English First’ at the national level is an affront to New Mexico,” said Earl Potter, chairman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico.

“I hope Domenici will declare, loud and clear, his opposition to Dole’s proposal,” he said.

State Senate President Manny Aragon, an Albuquerque Democrat, said, “Dole’s position is a rebuke of the Hispanics, Native Americans and other New Mexicans who still find value in their native language.”

State Rep. Sheryl Williams, an Albuquerque Democrat, urged Domenici to consider “the thousands of New Mexico voters who speak a second lanbguage before he goes any further in support of Bob Dole’s campaign.”

Domenici said that he spoke to Dole on Tuesday to reaffirm his opposition to “English only.” He said, “I am not in a position where I can have Senator Dole accept my views on every issue.”

Domenici said he continues to support Dole.

In 1982, Domenici voted against a Dole amendment to a Senate “English only” measure.

Dole’s “official language” support and his criticism of bilingual education are drawing fire from Hispanic-rights groups and educators.

“There is no problem in terms of Americans of all persuasions and from all different ethnic groups understanding the importance of learning English,” National Council of La Raza president Raul Yzaguirre said Tuesday. “So it’s a manufactured problem and it’s a manufactured issue designed to appeal to the prejudices and the resentments of a group of conservatives in this country.”

Carol Guzman of Albuquerque, who runs a private consulting firm that helps schools establish multicultural-education curriculums, said Dole’s remarks were “ridiculous.”

“He’s pandering to a very small segment of the population,” Guzman said today. “This is a last gasp from the White male power structure.”

On Monday, during a much-watched appearance before the American Legion in Indianapolis, Dole announced his support for making English the country’s official language.

“If we want to ensure that all our children have the same opportunities in life, alternative-language education should stop and English should be acknowledged once and for all as the official language of the United States,” said Dole, who is Senate majority leader.

Several GOP presidential contenders already support the official-English drive, including conservative television commentator Pat Buchanan, California Gov. Pete Wilson and Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind.

Dole’s closest rival, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, hasn’t declared his position.

“We will wait to see what (Dole) proposes,” said Gramm’s press secretary, Larry Neal. “Sometimes what he has to propose doesn’t quite match with what he has to say, whether it’s in English or any other language.”

On the matter of bilingual education, Gramm’s position parallels Dole’s.

“It has been my longtime position that bilingual education should be used only as the basis for teaching children to speak and write in English,” Gramm said Tuesday.

The federal government is spending nearly $157 million this year on bilingual education — roughly 10 cents for every dollar spent nationally on public school bilingual programs, with states and local communities picking up the lion’s share.

“For us to move toward some sort of policy toward driving out more bilingual people in our society seems nutty,” said Education Undersecretary Marshall Smith.

Smith said most non-English speakers in bilingual-education programs are placed in English-speaking classes with two or three years.

About one of every seven U.S. residents speaks a language other than English at home, the Census Bureau estimates. Up to 3.5 million students nationally have limited English skills.

Backers of the official-English drive contend the measure would encourage more immigrants to learn English and allow them to assimilate more easily into U.S. society.

Critics argue that official-English laws, endorsed by 22 states — not New Mexico — constitute immigrant bashing and foster discrimination.

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