In every single congressional session since 2003, Congressman Steve King (R-IA) has introduced the English Language Unity Act (HR 997), which seeks to establish English as the United States’ official national language. Though HR 997 would primarily represent a symbolic change by designating English as the official language, it is emblematic of the pervasive xenophobic chauvinism in the United States and threatens a degradation of other languages.
Designating English as the official language would do little to alter US law in practice. The bill would require all government publications and business to be in English and stiffen English tests and standards for citizenship exams. Proponents of HR 997 argue it would unify the country and encourage immigrants to learn English. Opponents, on the other hand, fear that the bill could encourage discrimination against those who cannot speak English and lead government agencies to reduce bilingual efforts.
If the bill’s intent still appears well-meaning, its list of cosponsors sheds light on its more insidious purpose. Congressman King, the bill’s primary sponsor, has been outed as a white supremacist, supported a neo-Nazi, and derogated Dreamers. All 72 cosponsors of H.R. 997 are Republican because there is not a single Democrat who supports the change. Further illuminating its controversy, the bill has a scant 2 percent chance of passing, according to Skopos Labs, despite its persistent introduction to Congress. Although it ostensibly offers a minimal change in governmental procedures, the bill’s origins from a white-supremacist congressman and its failure to gain bipartisan support or pass in Congress hint at the nationalistic, anti-foreigner intent of its supporters.
Support for designating English as the official language of the United States also comes from conservative non-profit organizations such as ProEnglish and US English, which exist for the sole purpose of establishing English as the federally-recognized, national language. These advocacy organizations rally supporters around the notion that they must save the tradition of America through the English language. Organizations like ProEnglish utilize donation plugs such as “help ProEnglish stop multilingual ballots in the next election” and “save English for our children” to inspire nationalistic fears about the deterioration of “our America” and support movements such as Make America Great Again. Suggestions like ending multilingual ballots would also further marginalize minority voters and inhibit the democratic process, exemplifying the far-reaching and threatening potential of the English-only movement that is intended by its supporters. In an analysis of the English-only movement in a review of scientific literature dating back to the 1980s, the American Psychological Association (APA) finds that the leadership of the English-only movement has promoted a racist and anti-immigration message. It is the discriminatory potential of the bill that, at least in part, motivates the supporters of English-only initiatives.
This form of nationalism, which degrades other languages and cultures, fuels the divide between polarized parties, citizens, and legislators. One opponent of English-only laws described their feelings toward the bill to an opinion writer for The Huffington Post: “As a bilingual person, this law sickens me and demonstrates the ignorance of some Americans. Bilingualism and the use of languages other than English only promote our richness as a nation, our heritage, and ultimately help to protect our national security. No true patriot could support or tolerate this hateful law.”
This “hateful” law also has tangible psychological effects. According to the APA, the English-only movement can have “negative consequences on psychosocial development, intergroup relations, academic achievement, and psychometric and health-service delivery systems for many American citizens and residents who are not proficient in English.” English-only laws create mental health consequences in the repression of multilingualism and diversity.
The American Civil Liberties Union has also voiced an opinion on the bill, calling HR 997 unwise, dangerous, contrary to civil rights, unconstitutional, and detrimental to Latinos and Asian Americans. Analyzing the bill from a legal and civil rights perspective, the ACLU determines that HR 997 would hinder many federal government functions such as tax collection, voter access, and naturalization procedures. To add to this, the ACLU concludes that HR 997 “contravenes a half-century of civil rights law by promoting discrimination based on national origin and is unconstitutional as an infringement of the First and Fifth Amendments.” The English-only movement boasts few, if any, positive outcomes, threatens real psychological consequences, and impedes relations between ethnic groups, social and ethnic identities, and cultural and linguistic education.
The fear-mongering movement to define English as the official language, and subsequently solidify the position of white, English-speaking citizens at the top of the American cultural hierarchy catalyzes divisions in American society. It fuels anti-immigration, anti-foreign ethnocentrism that furthers the divide among political parties and Americans everywhere. The English Language Unity Act offers unnecessary and fruitless legal change, but has the potential to marginalize and demean non-native English speakers while also degrading other languages and purporting the idea that English speakers are superior in America.
Photo: Welcome to America