English-only debate: It helps unify us
Des Moines Register
October 9, 2006


When lawmakers approved Iowa's law declaring English as the official language, it was not out of a spirit of exclusion, but a spirit of inclusion for the increasing numbers of immigrants who call Iowa home.

Helping new immigrants learn English is the best way we can welcome them and help them through their naturalization process. Learning English tears down the communications barriers that prohibit newcomers from realizing their full potential. Research shows that without good English skills, one is less likely to achieve academically, economically and socially.

According to a 2001 U.S. Department of Education report, those with limited English proficiency are less likely to be employed, less likely to be employed continuously, tend to work in the least desirable sectors and earn less than those who speak English. In fact, annual earnings by non-English-speaking adults were approximately half that of the total population surveyed.

For those who don't understand English, simple things such as reading road signs or talking with a doctor can make life difficult, even dangerous. A 2003 study in the journal Pediatrics found that translation errors are common in health clinics, putting patients at severe risk for medical errors.

Unfortunately, fewer immigrants are learning to speak English.   According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 11.9 million people lived in "linguistically isolated" households, meaning no one over the age of 14 spoke English in the home, or spoke English at a proficient level outside the home. These numbers were up 54 percent from 7.7 million in 1990.

To be "linguistically isolated" is also to be isolated from the American dream. As a result, Iowa became the 27state to adopt an official-language law. The idea is not to force immigrants to lose their native language, but to establish a common language that unifies our communities and drives our economy.

Polls indicate an overwhelming majority of Iowans agree. In fact, a Mason-Dixon poll released last month found more than three-quarters of Iowans stand behind the four-year-old law. The survey found 77 percent of Iowans want the state to conduct business in English, including strong majorities within each political party.

Repealing the law would provide a severe disservice to immigrants themselves because it lowers the expectation for successful integration into American life. Diversity with integration is a society enriched. Diversity without integration is a society divided.   In promoting English as our official language, state government is promoting an integrated society. Iowans deserve nothing less.

LARRY MCKIBBEN is a state senator from Marshalltown.