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English-Only Laws

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Laws that seek to establish English as the official language of the United States.

The movement to make English the official language of the United States gained momentum at both the state and federal levels in the mid 1990s. In 1995 alone, more than five bills designating English as the official language of the United States were introduced in the U.S. Congress. In September 1995, Representative John T. Doolittle (R-Cal.) proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would establish English as the official language of the United States (H.R.J. Res. 109, 104th Cong., 1st Sess., 141 Cong. Rec. H9670-04 [1995]). The proposed amendment states, in part,

The English language shall be the official language of the United States. As the official language, the English language shall be used for all public acts including every order, resolution, vote or election, and for all records and judicial proceedings of the Government of the United States and the governments of the several States.

Related legislation considered in the U.S. House of Representatives included the National Language Act of 1995 (H.R. 1005, 104th Cong., 1st Sess., 141 Cong. Rec. H1967-04 [1995]), introduced by Representative Peter T. King (R N.Y.), and the Declaration of Official Language Act of 1995 (H.R. 739, 104th Cong., 1st Sess., 141 Cong. Rec. H889-02 [1995]), introduced by Representative Toby Roth (R-Wis.). Roth's bill would abolish section 203 of the VOTING RIGHTS ACT OF 1965 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973aa-1a), which requires bilingual ballots, and the federal Bilingual Education Office, which is funded through the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 (20 U.S.C.A. §§ 3281 et seq. [1988]). English-only advocates favor the elimination of these programs, arguing that earlier immigrants to the United States learned English without such government help.

In the U.S. Senate, Senator Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) introduced the Language of Government Act of 1995 (S. 356, 104th Cong., 1st Sess., 141 Cong. Rec. S2124-04 [1995]). This legislation states, in part,

[I]n order to preserve unity in diversity, and to prevent division along linguistic lines, the United States should maintain a language common to all people; … the purpose of this Act is to help immigrants better assimilate and take full advantage of economic and occupational opportunities in the United States; … by learning the English language, immigrants will be empowered with the language skills and literacy necessary to become responsible citizens and productive workers in the United States.

By the end of 1995, more than 20 states had passed their own laws declaring English to be the official state language. Most state English-only laws have been established since the mid 1980s, although Louisiana's was enacted in 1812. Many of the laws are largely symbolic and lack an enforcement mechanism. For example, the California measure, CA Const. art. 3, § 6 (West), a state constitutional amendment approved in 1986, simply states,

The Legislature and officials of the State of California shall take all steps necessary to insure that the role of English as the common language of the State of California is preserved and enhanced. The Legislature shall make no law which diminishes or ignores the role of English as the common language of the State of California.

Some versions of the proposed English Language Amendment would void almost all state and federal laws that require the government to provide services in languages other than English. The services affected would include health, education and social WELFARE services, job training, translation assistance to crime victims and witnesses in court and administrative proceedings; voting assistance and ballots, drivers' licensing exams, and AIDS-prevention education. English-only laws apply primarily to government programs. However, such laws can also affect private businesses. For example, several Southern California cities have passed ordinances that forbid or restrict the use of foreign languages on private business signs. English-only advocates have opposed a telephone company's use of multilingual operators and multilingual directories, FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION licensing of Spanish-language radio stations, and bilingual menus at fast food restaurants.

Those who oppose English-only laws point out that naturalization for U.S. citizenship does not require English literacy for people over 50, nor for those who have been in the U.S. for 20 years or more. Thus, there are many elderly immigrant citizens whose ability to read English is limited, and who cannot exercise their right to vote without bilingual ballots and other voter materials. Moreover, these advocates maintain that bilingual campaign materials and ballots foster a more informed electorate by increasing the information that is available to people who lack English proficiency.

Advocates of English-only legislation argue that having one official language will serve as a unifying force in the United States. They point to the findings of the 1990 census that 32 million U.S. citizens live in a non-English-speaking household and that of these, 14 million persons do not speak English very well. In a 1995 Labor Day address to the AMERICAN LEGION Convention in Indianapolis, printed in 141 Cong. Rec. E 1703-01 (1995), U.S. Republican presidential candidate and Senate Majority Leader BOB DOLE, of Kansas, echoed this unification theme, stating,

[I]f we are to return this country to greatness, we must do more than restore America's defenses. We must return as a people to the original concept of what it means to be American… . For example, English must be recognized as America's official language… . Lacking the centuries-old, primal bonds of other nations, we have used our language, our history and our code of values to make the American experiment work… . These are the forces that have held us together—allowing us to … absorb untold millions of immigrants while coming the closest any country

ever has to the classless, upwardly mobile society of our ideals.

Members of U.S. English, an advocacy group founded in 1983, claim that English should be the primary, but not exclusive, language of government. They believe that all official documents and proceedings should be in English, but would make exceptions for the use of other languages in such places as hospitals, emergency rooms, police stations, and tourist sites. Actually, a 1995 study of government print communications, conducted by the GENERAL ACCOUNTING OFFICE, found that only a small percentage were in a language other than English. The study, requested by advocates of English as the official language of the government, examined titles released by the GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE and an agency of the U.S. COMMERCE DEPARTMENT over a five-year period. Of approximately 400,000 titles examined, only 265, or less than 0.06 percent, were in a foreign language. The study excluded foreign language communications issued by the DEPARTMENT OF STATE and the DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, which most English-only advocates consider to be a legitimate use of languages other than English.

Critics argue that English-only laws are a hostile reaction to the ongoing influx of immigrants to the United States. In a September 1995 address to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, President BILL CLINTON attacked the English-only movement, stating,

Of course English is the language of the United States… . That is not the issue. The issue is whether children who come here, while they are learning English, should also be able to learn other things. The issue is whether American citizens who work hard and pay taxes and who haven't been able to master English yet should be able to vote like other citizens.

In May 1995, Governor Parris N. Glendening, of Maryland, vetoed a bill passed by the state legislature that would have made English the official language of state government. He said the legislation's anti-immigrant sentiment would divide the state's citizens. In Arizona, critics of a constitutional provision making English the official language sued the state, the governor, and other state officials to stop its enforcement.

In Yniguez v. Arizonans for Official English, 69 F.3d 920 (1995), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a lower court's ruling that the provision, which bars state and local employees from using any language other than English in performing official duties, violates free speech rights and that it is unconstitutionally overbroad. This ruling was later overturned, Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U.S. 43, 117 S.Ct. 1055, 137 L.Ed.2d 170 (1997). The case began in October 1987, when an organization called Arizonans for Official English began a petition drive to amend the Arizona Constitution to prohibit the government's use of languages other than English. The drive resulted in the 1988 passage of Article XXVIII of the Arizona Constitution, titled English as the Official Language. Article XXVIII provides that English is the official language of the state of Arizona, and that the state and its political subdivisions—including all government officials and employees performing government business—must act only in English.

When the article was passed, Maria-Kelley Yniguez, a Latina, was employed by the Arizona Department of Administration, where she handled MEDICAL MALPRACTICE claims. She was bilingual in Spanish and English and communicated in Spanish with Spanish-speaking claimants and in a combination of English and Spanish with bilingual claimants. Because state employees who fail to obey the Arizona Constitution are subject to employment sanctions, Yniguez stopped speaking Spanish on the job immediately upon passage of Article XXVIII, because she feared that she would be disciplined. In November 1988, Yniguez filed an action against the state of Arizona and various state officials, including the governor and the attorney general, in federal district court. She sought an INJUNCTION against state enforcement of Article XXVIII and a declaration that the provision violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as federal CIVIL RIGHTS laws. The district court interpreted the provision as barring state officers and employees from using any language other than English in performing their official duties, except with certain limited exceptions, and ruled that it infringed on constitutionally protected speech in violation of the FIRST AMENDMENT.

Arizona voters passed an English-only law as an Amendment to the Arizona Constitution adopted through a petition drive that culminated in a general election in November 1988. The Amendment provides that English was the official language of the State of Arizona, and that the State and its political subdivisions must "act" only in English. In April 1998, the Arizona Supreme Court held that the amendment violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in that it adversely impacted the constitutional rights of non-English speaking persons regarding access to their government, and that it limited political speech of elected officials and public employees. The court also held that the amendment violates the EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT to the United States Constitution in that it unduly burdens core First Amendment rights of a specific class without materially advancing a legitimate STATE INTEREST. Plaintiffs in the case were four elected officials, five state employees, and one public school teacher. All plaintiffs are bilingual and regularly communicated in both Spanish and English as private citizens and during the performance of government business. The court noted that although 21 states and 40 municipalities have official English statutes, most of those provisions are substantially less encompassing and less proscriptive than Arizona's Amendment. In mid January 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court denied review of the case, then known as Ruiz v. Hull, 191 Ariz. 441, 957 P.2d 984 (1998).

Utah became the twenty-sixth state to declare English as its official language, in November of 2000, when voters approved a measure that lawmakers had failed to pass on three previous occasions. That law provided for several exceptions, allowing languages other than English, for example, when required by law, for public health and safety, and in public education. Concerned that the measure would be read generally to prohibit the government and the people from communicating in any language other than English, the AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION of Utah filed a suit on behalf of elected and appointed officials, government employees, nonprofit organizations, and an individual plaintiff challenging the constitutionality of the initiative. After a trial in January 2001, the Utah district court issued a 15-page ruling that dramatically limited the law. According to the court, in order to pass constitutional muster, the law cannot be read to prohibit government employees and elected officials from communicating in languages other than English. Similarly, the court concluded that the law's exceptions must be broadly construed to permit the government to provide essential services, including driver's license exams, in languages other than English.

On April 24, 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a 5–4 vote, rejected a legal challenge to Alabama's Official ENGLISH LAW, which was a tremendous victory for Official English. In Sandoval v. Alexander 532 U.S. 275, 121 S.Ct. 1511, 149 L.Ed.2d 517 (U.S., Apr 24, 2001) (NO. 99-1908), Sandoval claimed that because it was a recipient of federal financial assistance, the Alabama Department of Public Safety was subject to Title VI of the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964. Since Section 601 of Title VI prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin, Sandoval brought a CLASS ACTION suit to enjoin the department from administering state driver's license examinations only in English. Sandoval argued that the English-only policy violated the DOJ regulation because it had the effect of subjecting non-English speakers to discrimination based on their national origin. The Court disagreed and ruled that there was no private right to sue the state under the federal anti-discrimination law. The majority, led by Justice ANTONIN SCALIA, held that private citizens were never authorized to sue under the title's disparate-impact regulations. The Court declared that Congress only prohibited intentional discrimination when it wrote Title VI, but left it up to the federal government to apply the discrimination ban to practices that have unintended discriminatory effects. Thus, unless Sandoval could prove that the Alabama driver's test intentionally discriminated against her, she had no grounds to sue the state.

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