English only please

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They’re yanking chains again on Capitol Hill

By Hal Rhodes

Have you noticed how the same old divisive legislative proposals invariably get new leases on life when a fresh batch of right-leaning politicos gets elected to Congress?
For example, it’s a safe bet that somewhere along the line, there’ll be a hue and cry to cut federal funding for public broadcasting.
It’s equally predictable there’ll be renewed zeal for so-called “English only” legislation designed to make English the official language of these United States. This one has legs and comes back to haunt political season after political season.
And, sure enough, it is upon us anew, thanks in part to the large cadre of Republican Tea Partiers who were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives last November.
Nor is congress the only legislative body that finds itself agitated by the drive to make us an “officially” English speaking people.
Last month, by a 102-55 margin, the Missouri House of Representative passed and sent to that state’s Senate a measure mandating that driver’s license tests be administered in English only in the Show Me state.
Back on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, the Republican push intensified for legislation designating English “official” throughout this land—never mind that for the original Americans, English was nothing if not a foreign tongue.
The measure is ironically called the “English Language Unity Act,” and it surfaced just as new census data were revealing national demographic shifts that show erstwhile “minority” groups emerging as “majorities” in some parts of the country, New Mexico among them, where Hispanics now outnumber the former demographic majority variously known as “Caucasian” and/or “Anglo.”   
Notwithstanding the enthusiasm of its proponents, “English only” proposals have forever drawn critics who variously question the wisdom of such measures or dispute their legitimacy, often on constitutional grounds.
“If freedom of speech does not embrace the right to speak a language of one’s choice or heritage,” some doubters ask, “what does it embrace?”
In New Mexico the constitutional questions are particularly vexing precisely because, beginning with statehood in 1912, it has been constitutionally and legally impermissible to deny individuals the right to speak and write languages other than English.
Those legal guarantees in New Mexico are reflected on the ballots state voters find waiting for them every election year at their polling places where votes can be cast either in English or Spanish.
Indeed some New Mexico historians contend that it is unlikely a state constitution would have been approved by territorial voters back in 1912 had congress insisted on a provision mandating English as the new state’s “official” language.
Over the years, moreover, members of congress from New Mexico have typically eschewed “English only” legislative measures.
Even former Sen. Pete Domenici, ever the loyal Republican, broke with his party when it tried to advance such legislation near the end of his years in the senate.
This time around little has changed, with five of the state’s six members of congress lined up against GOP efforts to designate English as the United States’ official language.
Republican Steve Pearce, of the 2nd U.S. House district, is toeing the party line, however, irrespective of the conflict that would create between a federal statute and the New Mexico’s constitution and laws.
On the other hand, this latest “English only” skirmish on Capitol Hill might be just another case of congressional Republicans yanking our chains to appease their right-leaning political base.
Which could have been what Dist. 1 Democratic Congressman Martin Heinrich had in mind when he said, “This bill is yet another wedge issue being used by congressional Republicans to distract from their utter lack of an economic policy.”      

 Hal Rhodes
NM News Services