Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006

By:  Lindsey Graham
Date: May 18, 2006
Location: Washington, DC



Mr. GRAHAM. Mr. President, just to put this debate in perspective for myself and myself alone, I wish I could speak an additional language. It would make me a better person. I think I would enjoy that experience. I know enough German just to be dangerous. I lived 4 1/2 years in Germany, and I picked up a little of the language, but I was always somewhat embarrassed that all my German friends probably spoke better English than I, and several other languages. It would be great for our country if our young people could learn additional languages because we live in a global economy and a global world, and it would make America a better place.

However, what makes America a special place and what is the key to success in America, from an economic and social perspective, is to master or be competent in the English language. While I personally would like to be able to speak another language--I think it would make me a better person, it would change my life for the better--when it comes to our Nation, it is important that we focus as a nation on those things which unify us, and our common language is English. We need to understand that and promote that because if you are coming to America or you are here now, your life will be tremendously enhanced if you are fluent in the English language. Opportunities will exist for you that will not exist otherwise.

I know there are many people in this body from different places in the world, and some have parents or grandparents who came here not speaking a word of English. Some may have died not speaking a word of English, and their lives were just as valuable as anybody else's life, but we are trying, as a Government to make a policy statement here--it is a policy statement--but not change the law at the same time.

The goal of this amendment is to say English is the national language of the United States. That is true. I would encourage every American to learn another language, get your kids enrolled in taking Spanish or some other language because they will be more successful in a global economy. From an individual level, we would be better off if every American could master additional languages other than English. But from a national perspective, to make sure we maintain our national unity and our common sense of being one nation, it is important that we emphasize the need to assimilate into America by mastering the English language. Senator Inhofe is making a statement that needs to be made. I congratulate him.

What does this amendment do, and what is it intended to do? This amendment says:

The Government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role of English as the national language of the United States of America.

That is a good policy statement. From an individual perspective, we should learn as many languages as possible, but from a national perspective, we need to promote assimilation in our society. The best way to assimilate into our society is not to abandon your native tongue but to also learn English.

Mr. DURBIN. Will the Senator yield for a question?

Mr. GRAHAM. I certainly will.

Mr. DURBIN. Mr. President, I would like to first commend the Senator from South Carolina. He and I have spoken in the well here on the floor about this issue. I am trying, as he is, to understand this issue from another's point of view because I am a lucky person. My mother was an immigrant to this country. When her parents came to this country from Lithuania, they did not speak English. My mother spoke both Lithuanian and English, and as a young girl was an interpreter in court so immigrant families could have justice even if they didn't understand English very well. My mother spoke both languages, but I speak only English.

The Spanish language has become an important symbol for so many people in this country. It reflects on their heritage. It is a source of pride. They are proud to be Americans, but they are equally proud to have a heritage they can point to.

I look at the amendment offered by the Senator from Oklahoma. I can't quarrel with his beginning sentence where he says:

The Government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role of English as the national language of the United States of America.

That strikes me as a statement of fact. English is our language. Success in America depends on a command of English. If you speak only Spanish, your horizons are very limited.

But what troubles me, and I am still wrestling with it, and I think the Senator from South Carolina is as well, is the rest of the amendment. What happens in the situation where a person is here legally in the United States but has limited English language skills--what happens when that person, legally here, goes into a courtroom, goes in to vote, goes before law enforcement agencies? What kind of guarantee can we give that the person will be treated fairly? Because just as English is at the root of who we are as Americans, so is the concept of fairness.

I am trying to find the balance. I think the Senator from South Carolina is looking for that same balance. I would like to ask the Senator to reflect on whether we are being careful in the language of this amendment. Are we going too far? Are we going to find people who are poor, people with limited language skills, who will not receive the kind of treatment and fairness we really take pride in as Americans?

Mr. GRAHAM. I will be glad to answer. That is a great question. Here is the way I view what we are trying to do. Please, others, speak up.

Even though we are trying, in this amendment, to promote the idea that English is the national language and the Government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role of English as the national language of the United States of America, there is something else we are trying to avoid doing. The truth is that a variety of Government services are authorized and provided by law in languages other than English. That decision has been made in the Voting Rights Act. There are a bunch of incidences in our law through court decisions, statutory schemes, maybe regulatory schemes, that would authorize a service to be provided by the U.S. Government in a language other than English. My goal is to make sure, in trying to bring us together, focusing on English as an essential part of who we are, not to disturb that legal setting.

So if in the example of the Senator of someone who is needing translation in court because they are not competent in the language, the English language, and they can't understand the proceedings--if a judge determines that or there is a statute which requires that person be provided translation, interpreting services, nothing in this amendment would override that.

Mr. DURBIN. May I ask the Senator to yield for a question?

Mr. GRAHAM. Yes.

Mr. DURBIN. Can the Senator point to me in a current situation where a Government service is being offered and explained in a language in addition to English--and that is usually the case.

Mr. GRAHAM. Right.

Mr. DURBIN. There will be English and then another language. And in my home State of Illinois, that language might be Polish, incidentally, or the Filipino dialect of Tagalog, for example, that might be the case.

Mr. GRAHAM. Right.

Mr. DURBIN. Can the Senator point to a single circumstance where he thinks there is an injustice in providing that alternative language instruction, an injustice that requires us to change the law of the United States of America?


Mr. GRAHAM. Let's go back to the original question and incorporate it into the answer. The Senator asked me if I know of a case where the American Government provides a service in some language other than English that I find unjustified? The answer is overwhelmingly no. We do provide, at the Federal level, bilingual ballots and other services outside of English for a reason, and I think those reasons are good.

The Senator from Oklahoma gave an example. I believe it is a Federal statute that makes sure that due process rights of people not sufficiently trained in understanding English are preserved. At some point in time--in 1978 or whenever it was--Congress came along and said: There will be services provided in a language other than English in a court setting. Not only do I think that is just, but I want to preserve it.

Here is the ultimate answer to the Senator's question. If there is an example of an injustice in the Senator's mind as an individual Senator, where the Government of our country is providing a service not in English, this will not remedy that injustice.

That is what I am trying to say. Passing this amendment, voting for this amendment will not remedy that injustice. If you find one, you would have to come to the floor of the Senate and introduce a bill--a regulation--because this does not do that.

What Senator Inhofe said is absolutely right. The reason I am going to vote for this is because I think it tries to unite us without taking off the table exceptions to English or services provided other than English. It doesn't disturb the legal situation in this country by a statute, regulation, court decree or an Executive order conferring rights of people to receive services other than English. If I thought it did, I wouldn't vote for it.

Mr. DURBIN. Mr. President, if I may ask the Senator to yield for a question, I wish there were a way to engage the Senator from Oklahoma because it is his amendment, and I would like to hear his response. I hold in my hand a publication from the Department of Justice which you can find on the Web site. I invite my colleagues to go to the Web site. They can read this official publication from the Department of Justice, and this is what they will learn. It is entitled, ``Know Your Rights.''

Do you have trouble with English? Are you unable to speak, read, write, or understand English well? If so, you are limited in English proficiency. Federal agencies and organizations which get money from the Federal Government have to take reasonable steps to help people who have trouble with English. Sometimes when a government agency or organization does not help you because you are limited in English proficiency, they violate the law. This is called ``national origin discrimination.''

They go on to say:

There is a Federal law that protects your civil rights. The law is called ``Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.''

It goes on with examples of possible discrimination. If you come to a hospital and you have limited English proficiency, they are supposed to be able to try to help you understand what your rights are and treat you.

Are we changing that? Will the Inhofe amendment change that? If it doesn't, why are we enacting this? If this is law which we are comfortable with and will live with--and it is currently law in the United States--why are we trying to change it? If we are eliminating this protection which is currently in the law, recognized by the Department of Justice, why are we eliminating it?

That is my question.

Mr. GRAHAM. Mr. President, I will give the Senator my answer and then yield to anyone. I know we need to wrap this up.

In my opinion, the phrase, ``unless otherwise authorized or provided by law,'' we would preserve that service. Simply stated, that language to me is intended to make sure that whatever service is provided in a language other than English, our Federal Government is not disturbed. If you want to disturb it, you would have to come back and do something else.

Mr. DURBIN. If that is not the case, what does this add? What does it change? What does it bring to the law that isn't currently in the law?

Mr. GRAHAM. May I suggest why I think we need to do this and why I support Senator Inhofe. We have gone through a great debate in this country, which is long overdue. What does it mean to be an American? And what role unites us and what divides us? I think it is time for this body to say two things: We will continue to provide services other than English out of a sense of justice and fairness, and we are not going to disturb that because I think there is a goal for that in our society.

But as we debate how to assimilate 11 million people, we need to make it clear that it is the policy of our Government not to change the law but is the goal of our Government to enhance our common language, English. To me, that is a good thing to say because when the demonstrations are in the streets with Mexican flags, they have the right to fly any flag, but some of us have to respond to that. I am supporting the bill, but I am not going to sit on the sidelines and watch demonstrations that destroy national unity. I am trying to bring us all together, and I want the individuals who are here and undocumented to be documented by taking civics classes and taking an English proficiency exam.

Why do we ask them to do that? Why is that part of the pathway to citizenship? We all know if they don't become proficient in English, they will never achieve their own individual value and will be hurting our country. And we are trying to reinforce that without doing it in a way that would deny services already provided in languages other than English. That is why it is important to me. That is why I will vote for it.

Mr. SPECTER. Mr. President, will the Senator yield?

Mr. GRAHAM. I yield the floor.


Mr. GRAHAM. Mr. President, this is a debate which you wonder why you are having it the more we talk about it. How did we get here from where we started?

Let me suggest that what Senator Inhofe was trying to do here is important. Senator Bingaman, my good friend from New Mexico--I disagree with him that this is not that big a deal in terms of its importance to the bill or the debate. I think it is a very important part of the debate. I appreciate Senator Inhofe putting it on the floor of the Senate. We will talk about what I think the amendment does and does not do. Let's talk about why it is important to the debate.

One thing we have to remember is that the underlying bill that came out of Judiciary, the McCain-Kennedy concept as changed by Hagel-Martinez, which I support and I think is a good solution for a real problem for America, has as one of the provisions that if you will come out of the shadows and you raise your hand and say: Here I am, I am undocumented, the bill allows you a path to citizenship with several requirements before you can ever apply for citizenship. One of those requirements is that you come out of the shadows, and for a 6-year period you can work here, and you have to pay a $2,000 fine. I think that is fair. I don't think that is being oppressive. That is making people pay for violating the law. It is a punishment that is consistent with a nonviolent offense.

Another condition is that you must learn English. Why did we make that a condition of coming out of the shadows? I think Senator Kennedy and every other person on that side of the aisle--the Democratic side of the aisle--understands that to require an illegal immigrant to learn English is not unfair. If we thought it was unfair, we should not have put it in the bill. Why did we put it in the bill? We realize as a body the best you can do for people coming out of the shadows is challenge them and help them learn English so they can be value added to our country and they can survive in our economy.

It is true that the Inhofe amendment doesn't provide any resources, nor does the Salazar amendment. The reason neither one provides resources to learn English is that we have already done that with my good friend, Senator Alexander from Tennessee. We put a requirement on the undocumented illegal immigrant to learn English but in a true American fashion. We have put some resources--a $500 grant--on the table which will help meet that obligation.

Here is the important point. If you fail to pass the English proficiency exam, you will be deported. Under the bill, if you fail to pass the English proficiency exam--and I am probably the worst advocate in the country for the English language--you can be deported. That is not unfair. That is not too hard. That is just. So if you are willing to make everybody come forward and learn English, and if they fail you are going to deport them, why can we not say as a body that the Government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role of English as the national language of the United States of America? If we are willing to deport people for failing to learn English, surely we should stand behind the concept as a nation that it is in our best interest for people to learn English.

Now, as to the unintended consequences, I have looked at this all day, and I am of the belief that this amendment, as written, preserves every legal opportunity avenue available for the Federal Government to interact with the people of the United States by issuing forms and documents in languages other than English. The purpose is to say publicly that English is our national language and that the Government shall preserve and enhance the role of English without having the legal consequence of rolling back laws that are already on the books that allow the Government to interact with its people, provide services in other languages. That is why the term ``unless otherwise authorized or provided by law'' is there. That means, simply put, if there is a law on the books--a case decision, a regulation, an Executive order, you name the source of law--or a constitutional provision that would allow the Federal Government to interact with its people in a language other than English, it is not affected by this amendment, nor does it prevent in the future the Government expanding those services in a language other than English. It says, also, there is no entitlement to a service from the Federal Government in a language other than English, unless authorized by law. That is just a simple, commonsense concept.

We do business in this country at the Federal level. We have programs at the Federal level that allow languages other than English to be utilized, including the Voting Rights Act, which allows bilingual ballots, and the Court Interpreters Act of 1978, which provides for translations or interpretations of other languages in Federal court. There are a lot of laws that allow the Federal Government to provide services in languages other than English, and this amendment protects those laws; it doesn't change their status at all.

Now, to read this amendment to say that some State flag has to be changed--I will be honest with you, that is not even an honest, fair interpretation of the words as printed on the paper. It is not the intent of anyone. It is something being said that is not rationally related to the words or the intent of the author or the way the bill works. We are trying to preserve whatever legal rights there are to do business in languages other than English that are in existence today, and maybe tomorrow, and we are trying to reinforce the role that English is our national language. If we don't do that, if we back off of that concept, what signal are we sending to the people we are willing to deport if they fail to learn English?

We cannot have it both ways. We need to take a strong stand for a couple of principles. If you want to assimilate into American society, it is important that you learn English. How have we stood for that principle? If you come out of the shadows and you fail the English exam, you are going to get deported. We are giving people money to help them pass that exam, but we are not going to waive the requirement that you learn English to be assimilated for the 11 million undocumented workers. I think it would help everybody in this country if the Senate went on record and said that the policy of this Government will be to preserve and enhance the role of English in our society, and do it in such a way that understands that speaking other languages, having a different culture, is not a bad thing but a good thing. There is nothing in this amendment, in my opinion, that does away with any laws that already exist or might exist in the future for a language other than English.

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