Already, we hear the partisan cries for passage of the Democrat-backed DREAM Act and the Republican-backed Achieve Act, both of which are aimed at putting undocumented young residents on a path to citizenship. We have seen the Republican controlled House of Representatives pass the STEM Act, which would give visas to foreigners who earned degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics at American universities, yet the bill just as soon died in the Democrat controlled Senate.
As a result of this clear partisanship, I have doubts that both Democrats and Republicans will be able to come together in the foreseeable future to form a compromise on what has become a divisive political issue. Surely we can all agree that newcomers to the United States of America should all have the opportunity to achieve the American dream. The future of those who legally immigrate to this country should not be hindered by political bickering.
Rather than trying to come together on the most controversial aspects of immigration reform from the start, it would be wise for Congress to instead begin with logical and widely supported aspects of reform upon which both sides can agree. By finding common ground, lawmakers will be able to start making progress and moving forward toward more comprehensive reform.
Declaring English the official language of the United States will put our lawmakers on that path. Official English adds an incentive for immigrants to learn the common language of the United States, increasing the likelihood that they will achieve their fullest social and economic potential. It would allow immigrants to speak whatever language they choose at home and in their daily lives, while sending the message that success in the United States depends on learning the English language. Not to mention, it is a bipartisan issue that has the potential to bring members of both parties together to make sure newcomers to this country can best assimilate and reach success.
A Harris Interactive poll, commissioned by U.S. English this past June, found that 88 percent of Americans support English as the official language of the United States—including 96 percent of Republicans, 83 percent of Democrats and 89 percent of Independents. Even President Obama has spoken on the benefit of immigrants learning English. While discussing immigration reform in a press conference on November 14, 2012, President Obama said it is important for immigrants to learn English, and that immigrants should be given “every opportunity” to earn citizenship. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has, in its outline of immigration reform principles this past November, stated that immigrants should learn English and American civics, among other things.
When I arrived in the United States from Chile in the 1960s, I knew immediately that it was to my advantage to learn the common language in this country. For me, becoming proficient in English was the key to opening doors and allowing me to fully participate in society. From personal experience, I know that being surrounded by English speakers, rather than native language speakers, is the quickest way to learn a new language. I also know that without being provided with native language translations at government agencies, an immigrant will see an added incentive to learn English, the language of success in America.
A bill to declare English the official language of the United States government garnered 122 cosponsors in the 112th Congress, and 31 states have already passed legislation recognizing the unifying role of the English language on a state level. I strongly encourage Congress and the Administration to pass Official English on a federal level, serving as a first step toward immigration reform. Rather than playing politics with no actual progress, if both sides can come together to send immigrants the message that they are welcome in this country and that the government wants to see them succeed, everyone wins.
Mujica is chairman of the Board and CEO of U.S. English, Inc.