LATINO VOICES
02/02/2012 09:23 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2012

Bilingual Border Cities Challenge Movement To Make English The Official Language

"All government business is done in English here. I don't need an official law saying that English is the de facto language. Everyone knows that already," said John Cook, mayor of El Paso, Texas -- a border city in which 73 percent of its 800,000 inhabitants say they speak Spanish at home.

As the House GOP closes in on making English the official language, some on the front lines of the debate, like Mayor Cook, say they don't quite see the point.

Last week, presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney doubled down on their support for a bill that would require all official government functions to be conducted in English, at the same time as they attempted to appeal to Latino voters on TV and radio en Espanol. Both GOP candidates noted in a Florida debate that they'd like to see English become the official language.

"I believe English should be the official language of the United States, as it is. I also believe that in our schools, we should teach kids in English," Romney said.

And now some believe House Republicans are using language legislation as a wedge issue in the presidential race because President Barack Obama voted against such a measure as a senator, despite it having bipartisan support.

While the English-only movement gained popularity in the 1980s, and has come up various times during election years, federal legislation mandating English as the official language has never been passed. Supporters of the movement say making English the official language will advance political unity based on linguistic commonality, while critics say the movement is founded on irrational fears of immigration.

But for border towns with large Spanish-speaking populations, the debate is playing out in real terms.

Last week, a city council candidate in San Luis, Arizona, was barred from running for office when it was decided she couldn't speak English proficiently. Claiming that her language skills are adequate for her border city, which is 98.7 percent Hispanic, Alejandrina Cabrera vowed to appeal the judge's ruling.

Conversely, in an ongoing city commissioner race in El Paso, the incumbent candidate, Willie Gandara Jr., said his challenger was unfit to serve because he didn't know how to speak Spanish well enough. Gandara claimed that speaking Spanish was "of the utmost importance" for politicians in a border city like his own. In 2006, the tiny border town of El Cenizo, Texas, even declared Spanish its official language, sparking heated discussion on the issue nationally.

But Cook, the mayor of El Paso, says he doesn't see the point of declaring a language either way. According to Cook, the vast majority of El Paso residents are bilingual in both English and Spanish, switching between the two languages as needed. But, all government functions are conducted in English.

Cook, who is quadrilingual (in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and French), says he would like to see politicians spend more time thinking about how to teach students second languages, and less time legislating on something that already exists in practice.

The mayor believes that support for the bill comes from widespread fear that the U.S. is changing due to immigration.

"You have people who feel the status quo is being threatened," Cook said. "You see the growth of the Hispanic populations all across the U.S., and a lot of people feel uncomfortable with that," he added.

Republican Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa), who introduced the English Language Unity Act of 2011, said in a release that establishing English as the official language for government functions will, "encourage assimilation of all legal immigrants in each generation."

"A common language is the most powerful unifying force known throughout history," King said. Over 90 percent of nations have an official language, he noted, saying that it's time for the United States decide on English.

According to U.S. English, a group which advocates the passage of King's bill, 31 states have already passed their own legislation which promotes English as their official language in the absence of a federal law. Earlier this week Missouri's State House Committee passed legislation which will require all state drivers' tests be conducted in English.

On their website, U.S. English applauds these efforts and also calls for an end to the federal "bilingual ballot privision [sic]" which ensures that voting ballots be provided in non-English languages. King has also introduced a bill which would overturn bilingual provisions and another which would end the practice of birthright citizenship.

In Brownsville, Texas, a border town which is over 90 percent Latino, critics say making English the official language is both unnecessary and potentially detrimental to business.

Gil Salinas, the vice president of the Brownsville Economic Development Council, says the measure won't reflect well on the United States.

"We're sending the wrong message to the rest of the world," Salinas said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "We have a lot of business with Latin America down here in Brownsville and it'll get difficult to explain to prospective customers that now we only speak English officially."

Many in border towns say the debate is not so black and white as it is often portrayed in the rhetoric of politicians like former Massachusetts Gov. Romney and former House Speaker Gingrich (R-Ga.).

"We're a bicultural, binational, and bilingual city," Salinas said of his hometown, Brownsville. "Sure we'll use English in governmental capacities. But saying it's official language, and saying we can't throw in a little Spanish when we want, that doesn't make sense."

-

GET TO KNOW THE HARSHEST IMMIGRATION LAWS IN THE U.S.:

Harsh Immigration Laws

CONVERSATIONS