As one of the many immigrant rights activists that fought CA's Proposition 63 way back in 1986 with Californians United Against English Only [Prop 63] [which passed with 73% vote in CA], I worry that the backlash against immigrant communities which in the 80's had started as a fringe racist and xenophobic cult around self-hating US Senators like S.I. Hayakawa [the former president of my university SF State] and population control eugenicists like John Tanton has now grown some pretty hairy legs that stretch now to the highest levels of power in Washington.After an emotional debate fraught with symbolism, the Senate yesterday voted to make English the "national language" of the United States, declaring that no one has a right to federal communications or services in a language other than English except for those already guaranteed by law. The measure, approved 63 to 34, directs the government to "preserve and enhance" the role of English, without altering current laws that require some government documents and services be provided in other languages. Opponents, however, said it could negate executive orders, regulations, civil service guidances and other multilingual ordinances not officially sanctioned by acts of Congress.
Here's a bright idea. Instead of wasting time on "symbolic" measures, why doesn't Congress do something about the millions of illiterate Americans who can't read or speak English (and no, Rep. Tancredo, I'm not talking about Mexican immigrants).
Last year, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that 11 million adults were nonliterate in English. Another thirty million adults were literate only at the most basic level, meaning they had only the most simple and concrete literacy skills. What's the point of a law mandating all government papers be in English when millions of Americans still can't read or comprehend the document anyway? Oh yeah, I know the point. It's call midterm elections.
If Congress cares so damn much about the English language and having Americans learn English, maybe they should drop "symbolic" measures and start giving our educational system the attention it deserves so that we may finally rid ourselves of this scourge of illiteracy that is plaguing our nation.
For more on the rise of US English, FAIR and other groups in the English Only movement see Jim Crawford's amazing website and Chapter 6 from his Hold Your Tongue book on the English Only Movement. The Southern Poverty Law Center and Political Research Associates also have great background on the radical right wing and reactionary forces behind English Only and anti-immigrant forces in the US. See my Boston colleague Doug Brugge's excellent piece - The Anti-Immigrant Right - from 1995 for the PRA's newsletter The Public Eye.
Despite the backlash, language rights and immigrant rights activists must continue to fight the attacks and push for a proactive agenda in Washington, Sacramento and at the local level as well.
Over 10 years ago, my organization the Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights organized a proactive day of celebration, resistance and building power in Sacramento. Next week we continue in that tradition with the 10th Annual Immigrant Day on May 22nd 2006 in honor of California’s immigrants, whose presence and work continue to strengthen our communities and our state. Mobilization at the State Capitol in Sacramento.
Join hundreds of immigrants and advocates in raising our voices on behalf of immigrant families throughout the state. This year the Governor’s budget proposal once again targets immigrant seniors and disabled on CAPI and SSI, families who participate in CalWORKs, child-care workers, and critical health care and human services for low-income families. Immigrant Day 2006 will bring a unified voice to Sacramento in support of immigrant communities and working families. Join us May 22nd in Sacramento!On a similar note, on Tuesday May 23rd I am introduing a pro-bilingual education/language immersion programs resolution for our San Francisco Unified School District which if passed will expand our dozens of bilingual language immersion programs to include Cantonese, Spanish, Korean, Filipino enrichment, Japanese enrichment, to add new Russian and Mandarin programs as well. My pro-language equality school board resolution was drafted in the same spirit as another document I helped draft some 10 years ago, during our fight against the attacks on Bilingual Education in California and Proposition 227 . See the 1998 proactive policy statement on Multilingualism and Bilingual Education for the Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights. In 1997 we declared:
We see the anti-bilingual Unz Initiative [Prop 227] as an opportunity to increase our political participation as immigrants, to build cross-community alliances, and to bring together all people who believe in the rights and dignity of immigrants and educational equality for all.While the NCCIR no longer exists, other alliances and coalitions have formed to continue the fight for immigrant rights and language equality in our region. Despite the Senate's English- Only Vote this week, we must continue to seek out the opportunities to increase grassroots political participation, build and strengthen progressive labor/community alliances and advance a relevant proactive agenda for human rights and dignity for all immigrants and all peoples.