At a recent Pennsylvania town hall meeting, a woman pointedly asked Republican presidential candidate John McCain: “Why as an American do I have to push a button to speak English?” The crowd roared with applause.
“I think you struck a nerve,” McCain replied, adding, “English must be learned by everybody.”
That common-sense sentiment is shared by a huge majority of Americans. A March 2006 Zogby poll found 84% of likely voters agreeing that English must be the official language for government operations. Ironically, that same poll indicated that most Americans mistakenly believe English already is our official tongue. By the way, 53 countries –located mostly in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean — have made English an official language.
McCain would be well advised to take a position supporting official English in contrast to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who has voted against such legislation in the past and is on record opposing it in this campaign. McCain could take a page from colleagues like Sen. James Inhofe (R.-Okla.), who introduced the S.I. Hayakawa Official English Act, named after the late senator from California, by saying:
“Since our nation’s founding, countless millions of immigrants from every corner of the globe have forged proud new identities as Americans and succeeded in their new land by learning English and adopting our civic values and institutions. But today, in the midst of the largest wave of immigration in our history, there are troubling signs we are letting this priceless gift of unity, our common language, slip away.”
Among those “troubling signs” are data from the U.S. Census that found that the number of “linguistically isolated” households (Those where English is not spoken) soared by 65% between 1990 and 2000 to a whopping 11.9 million households. And a 2007 Migration Policy Institute study that found that an astounding 57% of all limited English-proficient adolescents in the U.S. are native born and 30% are third generation.
But despite the public’s well-founded concern about the need to protect our nation’s historic unity in the English language, government policy is aggressively tilting in the opposite direction.
For example, federal agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission routinely distort the definition of “national origin” to charge the Salvation Army and other employers with illegal discrimination for requiring employees to speak English at work. And state officials deliberately flaunt their own official-English laws to pursue a dangerous policy of letting people who do not speak English take driver’s license exams in their native language.
One of the worst is Alabama, where voters adopted a constitutional amendment making English the state’s official language by an overwhelming 9-to-1 margin in 1990. The amendment required state officials to “take all steps necessary to insure that the role of English as the common language of the state of Alabama is preserved and enhanced.” But Alabama state officials give the driver’s license tests in 13 languages, including Arabic, Russian, Thai, Farsi and Vietnamese and claim they are obeying the law.
Executive Order 13166 signed by President Clinton and enforced by President Bush requires federal agencies and federal fund recipients to provide translations and interpreters for non-English speakers in their native language — at taxpayer expense. An Iranian immigrant in Oklahoma recently used the Executive Order as grounds for a complaint asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to investigate the state because it failed to give driver’s license exams in the Iranian national language, Farsi.
Passage of Sen. Inhofe’s official English legislation would end this mess.
Support for English as the official language of government is one of the few policy issues on which support crosses all partisan, ideological, and racial lines. It is a ready-made issue not just for McCain, but for anyone running for Congress or state legislative seats who wants to implement the wishes of the vast majority of the American people.