Today, Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, voiced his strong opposition to H.R. 997, a GOP Judiciary bill to prohibit usage of languages other than English in official government communications, including voter and ballot materials. At a Constitution Subcommittee hearing on the legislation, Nadler noted that such efforts not only fail to help immigrants learn English, but also penalize them -- and delay their assimilation -- for lack of fluency.
"Efforts to use the force of law to prohibit the use of languages other than English are not new, nor is the fact that these restrictions often have been put in place because of anxiety and distrust of new immigrant populations," said Nadler. "Our communities work because we all have mutual respect for each other, our different religions, traditions, cultures, and languages, as well as shared values and a common belief in the American Dream .Unfortunately, there is reason to suspect that proponents of English-only laws are not interested in ensuring inclusion in this American Dream but, instead, seek to bar our newest immigrant populations from its achievement .There simply is no legitimate need for "official English' or "English only' bills like H.R. 997."
The following is the text of Nadler's opening statement:
"Having already spent an extraordinary amount of Committee time and resources in an effort to roll-back the civil rights of women, persons with disabilities, gay and lesbian Americans and other minorities, our Majority colleagues are now taking their last opportunity to highlight a bill that would place at risk the 24.5 million people in the United States who need language assistance from their government in some situations. H.R. 997 does nothing to help these individuals learn English and to assure that, in the meantime, they are brought into the mainstream of American life.
"English is universally acknowledged as the common language of the United States. Government proceedings and publications are always performed or provided in English, though in some instances augmented by other languages when necessary for effective communication with the constituents that we serve. These additional means of communication do not threaten us as a people or a nation; on the contrary, they prove that -- beyond our common language -- what truly unifies us is a shared commitment to the principles upon which this nation was founded and flourishes -- freedom of speech, equal protection of the laws, and representative democracy.
"That shared commitment is unquestionably tested at times. Efforts to use the force of law to prohibit the use of languages other than English are not new, nor is the fact that these restrictions often have been put in place because of anxiety and distrust of new immigrant populations.
"In the aftermath of World War I, for example, when anti-German sentiments were running high and large numbers of European (including many German) immigrants were coming to this country, some states passed laws prohibiting the teaching of any language other than English in their schools.
"My colleagues on this Subcommittee should be familiar with the Supreme Court case in which struck that law down, Meyer v. Nebraska, because it is one of the leading cases establishing the fundamental right of parents to guide the upbringing of their children, the subject of a recent Subcommittee hearing and a proposed constitutional amendment introduced by our Distinguished Chairman.
"As the Supreme Court admonished in Meyer, the desire to ensure that immigrants to this country learn and speak English -- a claimed purpose both of the law in Meyer and the bill that we are considering today -- "cannot be coerced by methods which conflict with the Constitution -- a desirable end cannot be promoted by prohibited means.'
"The Alaska Supreme Court cited this passage from Meyer in Alaskans for a Common Language v. Kritz, finding that Alaska's requirement that English be used for all government functions and acts violates the First Amendment. That law, as would H.R. 997, deprived government officials, agents, and employees the ability to communicate with the public. It also prevented individuals from accessing vital information and services from their government, prevented effective communication with the government, and infringed on the Constitutional right to petition the government for redress of grievances.
"As the Alaska Supreme Court noted -- if the purpose of the law truly is to promote, preserve, and strengthen the use of English -- then creating and funding programs promoting English as a second language is a far less restrictive means of achieving that goal. This is what our Constitution requires; and it is what we as elected officials should demand. Laws like H.R. 997, which provide no affirmative support for those with limited English proficiency but -- as the Alaska Supreme Court put it -- "merely creat[e] an incentive to learn English by making it more difficult for people to interact with their government' have no place in our Constitutional scheme.
"These laws also should trouble us because, while proponents claim that their purpose is to unite the nation, these proposals divide us by sending a clear message that no one is welcome here until -- and unless -- they are fluent in English. But this cannot possibly be true. All of us represent multi-lingual communities. The district I represent is home to people who speak Spanish, Yiddish, Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Vietnamese, Urdu, French, Korean, Ukrainian, and Italian, to name just a few.
"Our communities work because we all have mutual respect for each other, our different religions, traditions, cultures, and languages, as well as shared values and a common belief in the American Dream.
"Unfortunately, there is reason to suspect that proponents of English-only laws are not interested in ensuring inclusion in this American Dream but, instead, seek to bar our newest immigrant populations from its achievement. We need look no further than the experience in Iowa to confirm that this fear is not unfounded.
"Representative King championed legislation that is nearly identical to H.R. 997 while a member of the Iowa. While campaigning for passage of his law in Iowa, Representative King said the law would not prohibit government usage of other languages and, to illustrate this claim, explained that "if the Storm Lake policy chief wanted to post signs in five languages, he would be allowed to do so, as long as one of the languages included English.' Once the law was passed, however, Representative King sued the Secretary of State for providing online voter registration forms in other languages, in addition to forms being provided in English.
"H.R. 997 unquestionably poses the same threat to the protections for language minorities in the Voting Rights Act, particularly given Representative King's efforts to remove those protections during our most-recent reauthorization of the VRA. Perhaps Representative King can clarify exactly how H.R. 997 will impact voting rights and whether his provision granting standing for anyone claiming injury under the law is intended to allow him to sue government officials for their usage of languages other than English. I would also like to hear why Representative King did not include in H.R. 997 a provision from his Iowa bill that allowed "any language usage required by or necessary to secure the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America or the Constitution of the State of Iowa.'
"As we consider this bill, let us not forget that we are a nation of immigrants and that this has made us stronger, not weaker. As we will hear from our colleague from Texas, Representative Charlie Gonzalez and from Florida State Senator Rene Garcia, those who are new to America embrace English and learn it as fast and as well as they can. They do so because English is the unquestionable gateway to opportunity, but also because it allows them to become part of the fabric of this great nation. There simply is no legitimate need for "official English' or "English only' bills like H.R. 997."