Unite the nation behind one language

Politics in the United States made for a tumultuous ending to 2013. Following a sixteen-day government shutdown, plans for immigration reform were abandoned and the enactment of Obamacare caused further unrest in Congress. As the new year begins, one thing is urgently needed in the United States: unity.

Declaring English the official language of the United States is an easy way to promote unity and inclusion. It is a logical, cost-effective way to create a common means of communication so everyone can participate on a level playing field. Not to mention, polls consistently show more than three-quarters of Americans support the idea. When is the last time Congress debated an issue that three-quarters of Americans support?

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Activity within the Official English movement on a state level is constant and widespread. To date, 31 states recognize English as the official language, and the remaining 19 are slowly following suit. In 2013, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Wisconsin saw the introduction of bills to make English their official language. Missouri, New Jersey and Tennessee saw the introduction of bills to limit Driver’s License Exams to English. In Maryland, three counties over the course of 12 months enacted Official English legislation. State legislators are listening to the will of the American people and are making progress with Official English legislation. I am hopeful this action on the state level will continue to spread.

Meanwhile, in Congress, legislators have widely ignored this issue, despite the introduction of bills in both the House and Senate. Efforts to make English the official language of the United States, however, have a long history in Congress. Such measures have passed one chamber or the other five times (in 1982, 1983, 1985, 1996 and 2006). At long last, it is time for elected officials to listen to their constituents, be open minded to Official English and bring such legislation up for a full vote in both chambers of Congress. With its wide-reaching impacts, English language issues impact most of the major issues currently before Congress.

First, Official English ties into the immigration debate. In order to become a naturalized United States citizen, one must be able to read, write, speak and understand English. Official English would assist in sending a message to immigrants that learning English is crucial to succeeding in daily life in the United States.

Some fear that making English the official language would deter immigrants, making them feel unwelcome. In reality, immigration to the U.S. is at an all time high—the highest since 1850. There are currently 31 states with Official English laws on the books, and the rates of immigration to them have not slowed. South Carolina, for example, enacted its Official English law in 1987, and has experienced a 337 percent growth of its immigrant population since 1990. Similarly, California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Georgia, Virginia and Arizona all have Official English laws and are all states that, according to the 2010 Census, house some of the largest immigrant populations nationwide.

Official English also ties into the Obamacare debate. When the health care reform was enacted, it was announced that the enrollment website would be offered in Spanish as well as English, in an effort to better serve Hispanics in need of health coverage. When technical glitches postponed the launch of the Spanish site, advocates across the country became outraged that Spanish speakers did not have equal access to the program. This is a prime example of how government translations hinder foreign language speakers. Even when Spanish speakers have the ability to apply for health insurance in their native language, what happens when they go to a doctor’s office or emergency room, where Spanish may not be spoken? They are left at a disadvantage.

The government would be better serving the nation’s foreign language speakers by encouraging English acquisition and removing the crutch of foreign language translations. Census data from 2011 shows that 22 percent of United States residents who speak a language other than English at home can only speak English “not well” or “not at all.” More significantly, a National Bureau of Economic Research report from June 2013 found that immigrants are assimilating slower than in years past and are learning English at a lower rate than in years past. It goes on to claim that larger immigrant groups, such as Spanish speakers, tend to have higher rates of limited English proficiency and that these limited English immigrants make less money than their native English-speaking counterparts.

Legislators across the country and in Congress should make it a priority this year to pass, strengthen and enforce Official English. As an immigrant to this country, speaking my native Spanish is comfortable, and it is a tie to my heritage. But English is what opens doors and allows me to feel fully American. The motto of the United States is E Pluribus Unum: out of many, one. With the melting pot of diversity in this nation, all residents deserve to feel unified and equal. Official English is a way to start.

Mujica, who immigrated to the United States from Chile in the 1960s, currently serves as the chairman of the Board of U.S. English, Inc., the nation's oldest and largest non-partisan citizens' action group dedicated to preserving the unifying role of the English language in the United States.