WASHINGTON – It was conceived as a way to reach out to millions outside the American mainstream. It is now condemned by conservatives as “linguistic welfare.”
Republicans in Congress and on the presidential trail are embracing a movement to reverse a quarter-century of government policies that accommodate foreign-language speakers – and to make English the official U.S. language for the first time in the nation’s 208-year history.
Brushing aside liberal critics who contend the official-English movement is a form of “immigrant-bashing,” a House subcommittee has scheduled hearings in mid-October- on a range of proposals – including two that take direct aim at bilingual education.
“It’s a cultural trend in this country which I think is dangerous,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y. “To many people, it’s become a metaphor for liberal policies that have failed.”
Mr. King’s bill would end mandates and $ 240 million in federal aid for bilingual education, though it would give states and localities the option of paying for it on their own.
New York City’s public schools have about 150,000 children in bilingual classes – a statistic that has not escaped notice by the method’s foes.
“New York City, like most states and cities, employs an entire staff of bilingual bureaucrats whose job it is to convince reluctant parents of the virtues of bilingual education,” said Rep.
Toby Roth, R-Wis., whose bill would ban it outright.
The drive has the support of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination.
To Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., the English crusade is a “mean-spirited” attack on a nonproblem – a baseless fear that multilingual policies dampen the desire of new arrivals to learn English.
The campaign against multilingualism, Mr. Serrano charged, “is not being done to save us from harm. It’s not being done to save our children. It’s being done for cheap political trickery to get your so-called angry white male even angrier now.”
Both sides agree that English is, and should remain, the dominant U.S. language, and that fluency in English is a must to succeed.
Mr. King says he’s no immigrant-basher – he opposed California’s Proposition 187 and his party’s move to deny immigrants welfare benefits. But multilingual policies, he said, make it easy for people “to stay in their own language ghetto . . . we’re not encouraging people to learn English.”
The official English movement has been fighting and winning battles on the state and local level for more than a decade.
The largest group, U.S. English, claims 640,000 members, and is strongest in California, where one in four residents is foreign-born. Its chairman, Mauro Mujica, a Chilean-born architect, adopted the term “linguistic welfare.”
A law declaring English official was signed in Arkansas in 1987 by then-Gov. Bill Clinton. That has been unsettling to the movement’s opponents, who worry Mr. Clinton might allow a new bill passed by Congress to stand.
But Mr. Serrano said White House adviser George Stephanopolous recently told him, “I guarantee you that he (President Clinton) will veto a bill if it comes to his desk.”