By Cecilia Munoz, New America Media, Commentary


WASHINGTON, DC – Among the myths and outright lies that regularly come up in the immigration debate — you know the ones I mean: that immigrants come to simultaneously steal Americans’ jobs and go on welfare, or have “anchor babies” who can get them legal status in 21 years — perhaps the most persistent one has to do with English.

Americans are jealous guardians of the English language and are convinced that immigrants –- Latinos especially -– refuse to learn it. The latest result of this notion was an amendment to the Senate immigration bill declaring English our “national” language. We need a law to tell us that English is important in this country about as much as we need a law to tell us to breathe air.

Latinos are especially subject to accusations of not wanting to learn English, even though the 2000 Census tells us that, of the households who say they speak Spanish at home, more than 70 percent reported speaking English “well” or “very well.”

By the second generation, as any immigrant can tell you, our households are bilingual, and by the third generation, we have to struggle to make sure that our children’s children can speak and understand the language of their grandparents.

It’s the same pattern that every immigrant group in this country has followed, yet other Americans have always feared that the pattern won’t continue, that English is somehow in danger in the United States.

English amendment supporters in the Senate may have believed they were voting to protect the language, but they may not have realized the damage they can inflict. The amendment could make it impossible for the government to communicate with its people in other languages unless there’s a specific federal law requiring such communication.

This means that many agencies that are now doing important outreach work on health, safety and even disaster relief may face new obstacles in getting information to our communities. If such a provision were to become law –- and we have many opportunities to prevent this from happening –- information our communities now get about immunizations, potential floods, devastating storms or public safety hazards, may no longer reach people who would most benefit from that information in other languages. This jeopardizes not only our own health and safety, but that of the rest of the American public as well.

If this issue were merely symbolic, as many in the media have claimed, it would be offensive enough. But its impact goes far deeper than symbolism, threatening the well-being of immigrants and their communities. There’s still time to make sure there’s no English language provision in a final immigration bill, but that will require immigrant communities themselves to step forward and speak out.

If English is going to be an issue, then Congress should be putting resources on the table for the hundreds of thousands of us who are willing to do the work and learn, but who can’t find language classes because there are too few of them. Community agencies struggle to meet the demand for English language instruction, with no help from government sources.

It‘s outrageous for Congress to endanger our communities in the name of “protecting” English, while doing nothing to make language classes more accessible. Perhaps English-only supporters can learn an important word in Spanish –- basta. Enough.


Cecilia Munoz is the executive director of the National Council of La Raza.

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