WASHINGTON – House members and witnesses agreed English literacy programs for immigrants are important but engaged in a heated debate Wednesday over whether English should be declared the country's official language.
The House subcommittee on education reform heard from a panel of experts and representatives on both sides of the English-only debate. The same day a report released by the Government Accountability Office showed that students of limited English proficiency are not doing as well as their peers in reading,math and science.
“English as the official language has been a code for official discrimination,” Rep. Rubén Hinojosa,D-Texas,said.
Hinojosa told the subcommittee that as a child he witnessed children being beaten for speaking Spanish in school.
“Instead of focusing on an issue that divides us,the subcommittee should be looking at how to help our children learn English,” Hinojosa said.
Rep. Rep. Lynn C. Woolsey,D-Calif.,the committee's senior Democrat,disagreed with the legislation.
“Not only are English-only policies unnecessary,they truly can be harmful. First,they do nothing to help immigrants learn English. They also jeopardize public safety,as in the case of natural disaster or health crisis,” Woolsey said.
Rep. Michael N. Castle,R-Del.,the subcommittee chair,said the subject was “revived” by the Senate's recent inclusion of two amendments in its immigration bill.
The amendments would make English the national “common and unifying language.” They would require those applying for citizenship to be proficient in English and learn American history but also guarantee immigrants' rights to communicate with the federal government in any language at taxpayers' expense.
By contrast,the House bill deals with expelling illegal immigrants and does not provide a path to citizenship,as the Senate bill does.
Rep. Mark E. Souder,R-Ind.,supports legislation making English the official language. He said his hometown of Fort Wayne,Ind.,has many immigrants and many city departments cannot deal with the different languages. He said English-only would strengthen the nation's identity.
“We have many refugees coming in. We have people with legal status who are there,who are going through the transition. But if we don't have an organized,official language we are going to descend into chaos,” he said.
He said he was “astounded at the resistance” to making English the official language.
State Sen. Paul McKinley,R-Iowa,discussed his English Language Reaffirmation Act,which became law in 2002. It requires all state and local official government business to be conducted in English,with eight exceptions. He said opponents claimed it would be viewed as unwelcoming to legal immigrants.
“This is absolutely false. The best way to welcome legal immigrants and help them through their naturalization process is to help them learn English,” he said. “Common language is the glue that binds a society and an economy.”
Raul Gonzalez,legislative director at the National Council of La Raza,told the subcommittee that English-only policies are “counterproductive” and “extremist.” He said they would weaken education,health care services and public safety. He dismissed the idea that immigrants don't want to learn the language. The National Council of La Raza provides English literacy programs.
“The statement that our nation is in danger of losing its identity of its character because of limited English proficient persons is unfounded,” Gonzalez said.
The committee heard also testimony about the importance of English-literacy programs from Art Ellison,policy chair of the National Council of State Directors of Adult Education.
“It is difficult to see how children can succeed in school,when so many adults,almost half of the adult populations,have basic skill needs,” Ellison said. “The issue is even more critical when parents do not speak English or have limited English proficiency.”
Ellison said literacy skills are critical for strong family structure. He said more funding is needed to allow increased access to English as a second language classes,as millions are unable to participate. Ellison named 13 states where adults are waiting for literacy programs.
The hearing was the second in a series being held by the House Education and the Workforce Committee and its subcommittees to discuss U.S. immigration policies and their potential impact on American students and workers.