Patsy Mink

English Language Empowerment Act Of 1996 - March 7, 1996

Patsy Mink
March 07, 1996— Washington, DC
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Mr Chairman, this bill that we are considering is entitled, "This act may be cited as the English Language Empowerment Act." I see nothing in this bill that empowers anybody in terms of becoming better acquainted with English or more proficient. There is not a penny being spent for education to promote English. We look at the education budget and it is being cut. What this bill really is doing is to confine, to restrict the programs and opportunities for people who are not proficient in English from participating in all the fullness and richness of this society. It really degrades the whole notion of our open society, accessible to everybody legally within its borders.

The moment we say something cannot be printed in anything else other than English, we are punishing that small sector of our society who are not a threat to our democracy. Less than 5 percent of our people in the census said they were not proficient in English. They are not a threat at all. Yet we are seeking to deny access to the Government by refusing to allow Government agencies from printing documents explaining how to get into programs, how to apply for business loans, how to really make themselves much more a part, an integral part, of this society.

If we want to empower all these individuals in our community, regardless of what their ethnic origin is or where they came from, it seems to me that we have to find ways in which to embrace them, not to leave them out. This bill excludes opportunity contained in all the bills that we have passed; it says they are repealed. If we said anything previously about opening up government and creating access for people who are not proficient in English, those are repealed. There is a repealer paragraph in this bill. Mr. Chairman, this is not an empowerment. It is denial.

Statement Of U.S. Congresswoman Patsy T. Mink (D-Hi)
Hearing On S. 356, The Language Of Government Act Of 1995
Senate Committee On Governmental Affairs
Thursday, March 7, 1996
(Revised To Apply To H.R. 123 As Passed The House On August 1, 1996)

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to appear today to speak against S. 356, which seeks to declare English as the official language of the United States Government.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 97 percent of Americans currently speak English "well" or "very well." Even among those immigrants who come to this country speaking other languages, most passionately desire to be proficient in English--for their own economic survival and to secure economic opportunity for their children. Today's immigrants are learning English faster than previous generations of immigrants; English classes are in such high demand that some stay open 24 hours a day, and statistics show that waiting lists are as long as 40 to 50 thousand. If this is so, why do we need a law to declare English to be our official language? It already is!

So maybe the reason for this bill is to save printing costs. A recent GAO report found that a mere six one-hundredths of one percent of federal documents produced since 1990 are in languages other than English; this works out to be only 256 out of 400,000 federal documents. I would also point out that most of those non-English documents were created to serve the Spanish-speaking residents of Puerto Rico. So I guess it is not the cost of publishing in other languages that justifies this limitation.

There is no evidence that this nation is threatened by "division among linguistic lines." English is far and away our nation's dominant, common language. There is no threat that English will be subsumed as a minor language. S356 has the potential of creating unwarranted division in this country. S356 is touted as a way to bolster the national unity but I am troubled by the divisiveness it will create.

How will making English our official language promote unity when thousands of legal, tax-paying immigrants and citizens will be denied a fuller opportunity to gain needed information and services because they are of limited English? What is the overwhelming public policy need to punish the few?

The right to benefit from their government should not be limited by language barriers. Language communication via radio, television, and written material is essential for a basic understanding of an already intimidating political process for many non-native English speakers.

Under S.356, in my role as a government official, my hands would be tied when dealing with my own constituents, for many of whom English is a second language. To suggest that I cannot represent those constituents to the best of my ability and will be forced to essentially exclude them from the political process through English-only written communication is preposterous and insulting. The Constitution of the United States guarantees freedom of speech. Nowhere does it say that it has to be in English. If we enact this bill it will be a limitation of our free society.

The strength of our nation has always been its diversity. The right of each person to seek information from their government should not be limited by restrictions on the provider. To forsake immigrants this right is to deny the very principle on which this country was built, which is free and open access to our elected officials and our government.

S. 356 would also specifically prohibit Native American federal employees or officials from communicating with the native population in their native language, even though it would be a more effective means of communication. In addition it could restrict the use of native languages by tribes and native organizations in implementing federal programs. It is clear that this legislation runs directly counter to overall efforts to preserve and promote the culture and history of the Native Americans.

Mr. Chair, I understand this particular piece of legislation does not specifically repeal bilingual education or multilingual ballot measures, however, its clear message of "English Only" is still exclusionary to those who do not speak English, implying that they are somehow less American than those who do. Whether or not it is its intention, linguistic elitism often gives way to the social forces of resentment and intolerance, and this bill panders to the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that has become increasingly prevalent. Worst, this official act of exclusion by the government delivers a hostile message to hard-working and patriotic non-native Americans who come to this country and ultimately contribute to its greatness...a slap in the face. I am not willing to deliver or support for a bill which has no ostensible purpose or meets no urgent need, the price is too great. I urge the Committee to reject it.

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