Massapequa became multicultured yesterday morning as 200 placard-carrying demonstrators marched in front of U.S. Rep. Peter King’s (R-Seaford) office and voiced their displeasure at his bill to declare English the country’s official language and scrap federal funding for bilingual education.
King and his backers argue that bilingual education keeps immigrants from learning English and bilingual ballots keep them from participating fully in the electoral process.
But chanting “Don’t Isolate, Educate,” the band of protesters who traced their roots to Central America or Eastern Europe, China or Puerto Rico, argued the opposite. While there’s no question that everyone needs to learn English to survive in this country, they said, doing away with bilingual instruction would only prevent scores of non-English-speaking children from ever making it in the mainstream.
“Bilingual education doesn’t isolate,” said Jaime Suarez, a spokesman for the Long Island Coalition for English Plus, which organized the rally. “You cannot teach a child in a language he or she doesn’t understand.”
Besides, added Parveen Chopra, a Baldwin resident and a member of the Nassau County Commission on Human Rights, promoting bilingualism makes sense in a country that prides itself on diversity and surviving in a global economy. A native of India, Chopra said he learned three languages at school. King’s bill, he argued, would be tantamount to “commiting economic suicide and leading to homogeneity.”
But in a telephone interview from his home yesterday, the congressman, who was not in his office during the protest, countered that bilingual programs are “corroding the base of our society” and hurting immigrants.
“I strongly believe that bilingualism is dividing us and having an extremely negative impact on immigrants because it gives them the false security of their native tongue,” he said.
Responding to critics who accuse the congressman of pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment, King said yesterday that he is “strongly pro-immigrant,” noting that he opposes the Republican proposal to bar legal immigrants from public services ranging from school lunch to housing subsidies. His bill is not anti-immigrant, he insisted, but a way to return to the days when immigrants had to learn English quickly.
“We had a generation of immigrants that did it the way I’m proposing, and it worked,” he said.
But at King’s doorstep yesterday, the homemade cardboard sign that Krishna Ruano, 14, held against her heart carried a different message. “English Only: Smoke Screen for Racism,” it read.
Krishna said she takes the debate over bilingualism personally. A native of Guatemala, she profited from two years of bilingual instruction in Long Beach schools.
“Two years of studying hard, it helped me,” she said. “It made me learn English.”
New Hyde Park resident Linda Joe, a member of the Organization of Chinese Americans, said immigrants already understand the importance of English. “Everyone knows this is the language you have to speak,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be legislated.”