Saturday, May 20, 2006

English as an Official Language?

The Bush administration has shown yet again that its right hand doesn’t keep track of everything its left hand does. Last Friday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez reacted to the Senate’s passage of an immigration bill amendment that would make English a national language and direct the government to preserve and enhance the role of the language in this country. A separate amendment to the bill also called English the unifying language of the United States.

“The president has never supported making English a national language,” Gonzalez said while meeting with state officials in Texas last week. He didn’t say whether or not his boss supports the current amendment because he’s waiting for the Senate to vote on the entire immigration bill. Passage is expected this month.

The House has already passed a version of the bill calling for stricter enforcement. The two bills differ markedly and it is expected that a radically different version of the bill will be finalized in conference committee.

Gonzalez apparently was tripped up by semantics. Although Bush has indicated he opposes adopting English as the official language of the United States, the president does support making it a national language.

“We have no problem in identifying English, our common linguistic currency as a national language; we also view it more expansively as the common and unifying language,” said White House spokesperson Dana Perino.

It seems like splitting hairs, but in the world of legalese and government policy, hairs are often split pretty thin.

The lack of an official language for the country hasn’t stopped many states from addressing the issue on their own. At least 23 states, including Indiana, now recognize English as their official state language.

Many people don’t know that English is the official language of Indiana. The state passed legislation in 1984 adopting English as the state’s official language. It also recognizes American Sign Language as a bona fide separate language.

Linguistics aside, the official immigration policy of the United States has become an emotional, hot-button issue for both political parties. Immigrants have staged massive, but generally peaceful, demonstrations in cities across the country.

The biggest issue is whether or not to grant expedited citizenship to the 12 million immigrants who are presently in the country illegally. The Senate bill would do so, and Pres. Bush backs such a measure. The House bill, however, does not contain such language and most House Republicans oppose it.

Granting expedited citizenship to millions of illegal aliens would seem not to be very fair to all those immigrants who jumped through the legal hoops to obtain their citizenship properly. On the other hand, deporting those millions of aliens so that they can begin the process of returning to this country through proper channels seems to be a logistical impossibility.

Multitudes of minimum-wage jobs would be left vacant if the illegal workers are displaced. It would lead to chaos in the workplace and lost productivity for thousands of employers, especially those in the agricultural and food industries.

In the mean time, different versions of the immigration bill would address the border issue in different ways. Should we build a 2000-mile-long, 20-foot-tall wall along the Mexican border to stem the flow of illegal aliens? Or should we simply add more border guards?

Bush said in a TV address last week that he will use the National Guard to temporarily assist border patrols. Some worry that the Guard is already stretched too thinly, with conflicts persisting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There probably isn’t a perfect compromise. But passing a law that would address the border issue first would seem to make the most sense. We need to lock down the border as tightly as possible, whether it is with a large fence, more patrols, or an as-yet-to-be-determined high-tech solution.

After the border is under control, it would then be the most logical approach to allow those who are already here to stay as long as they learn English, fill out all the paperwork, and stay out of trouble.

No, it wouldn’t really be fair to all those who have already gained citizenship legally, or to those who are in the process of doing so. But it’s the most pragmatic solution when looking at the big picture.

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