Senate OKs English amendments
WASHINGTON — After an emotional debate touching on what it means to be an American, the Senate approved dueling amendments on Thursday to designate English the "national language" and also the "common, unifying language" of the United States.
Both designations, presented as competing measures, were added to a sweeping immigration bill.
The Senate action, which must still be reconciled with a House-passed bill before becoming law, handed at least a partial victory to conservative senators and promoters of the English-only political movement.
The "national language" designation comes as close as politically possible to achieving a long-sought goal of some Americans of making English the official language of the country.
It would free government from providing translations of official communications unless specifically required by law.
The Senate bill would give illegal immigrants a chance to become legal residents and eventually citizens, but only if they pay fines of $2,000 and learn English.
The "national language" amendment sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., which passed by a vote of 63 to 34, says governments would not be required to use foreign languages in official communications unless specifically mandated by law.
Bilingual ballots currently required under federal law would still be provided. In other ways — such as signs, documents and public-service announcements — governments would be allowed but not required to provide translations.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called it a "racist amendment" that would "cut the heart out of public health and public safety."
Inhofe bristled at the assertion, saying the proposal would unify the nation's increasingly diverse population and wouldn't dismantle existing legal protections.
The first Senate vote on the issue in more than two decades illuminated the emotional divisions over Congress' efforts to pass legislation to deal with as many as 12 million illegal immigrants.
Most Democrats and some Republicans backed the alternative amendment sponsored by Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., that calls English the "common and unifying language" but would make no change in public policy. That amendment also passed, by a vote of 58 to 39.
Salazar, one of three Hispanic senators, whose family settled in Colorado before it became a state, asserted that the Inhofe amendment threatened a return "to the dark days of American history" when Hispanic children were punished for speaking Spanish in school, sometimes by having soap thrust in their mouths.
In response, Inhofe said his proposal would put the U.S. government in line with 27 states and 51 countries that declare English the prevailing language.