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Origins: On 25 May 2006, the U.S. Senate, by a 62-36 bipartisan vote, finally passed the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 — a controversial bill which proponents touted as providing comprehensive and humane immigration reform, and which opponents criticized as unfairly rewarding illegal aliens by allowing them to obtain legal status. Before the bill's final passage, many different amendments were proposed by various senators; some amendments were adopted, some amendments failed to pass, and some amendments modified or nullified provisions of earlier amendments.
Amendment 4064, proposed on 17 May 2006, sought to "Declare English as the national language of the United States and to promote the patriotic integration of prospective U.S. citizens." The relevant section of the amendment (as passed) read as follows:
The Government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role of English as the national language of the United States of America. Unless otherwise authorized or provided by law, no person has a right, entitlement, or claim to have the Government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services, or provide materials in any language other than English. If exceptions are made, that does not create a legal entitlement to additional services in that language or any language other than English. If any forms are issued by the Federal Government in a language other than English (or such forms are completed in a language other than English), the English language version of the form is the sole authority for all legal purposes.
In other words, this amendment declared that the federal government had no obligation to provide documents or services in any language other than English; that if the federal government did choose to provide some documents or services in any language other than English, they were not
obligated to continue doing so; and that if the federal government issued forms in other languages, the English-language version of those forms
would be legally pre-eminent.
This amendment was passed the next day by a vote of 62-35, which is the vote referred to in the e-mail message quoted above. However, the message errs in stating that 38 senators voted against the amendment —35 senators (all of them Democrats, save for one Republican and one Independent) voted "Nay," and 3 senators (two Republicans and one Democrat) did not vote at all. (Also, the version we received is missing one name, as Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who also voted against the amendment, is not listed.)
The issue became even more complicated when, half an hour after amendment 4064 was passed, the Senate voted on amendment 4073. This amendment sought to "Declare that English is the common and unifying language of the United States, and to preserve and enhance the role of the English language." The relevant section of the amendment (as passed) read as follows:
The Government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role of English as the common and unifying language of America. Nothing herein shall diminish or expand any existing rights under the law of the United States relative to services or materials provided by the Government of the United States in any language other than English.
For the purposes of this section, law is defined as including provisions of the United States Code and the United States Constitution, controlling judicial decisions, regulations, and controlling Presidential Executive Orders.
In other words, this amendment contradicted the previously passed amendment by declaring that English was to be regarded as "the common and unifying language of America" (rather than the "national language of the United States of America"), and that whatever obligations the federal government had to provide or honor documents and services in languages other than English should remain unchanged. This amendment also passed, by a vote of 58-39. (No Democrats voted against this amendment, although 14 Republicans and one Independent voted in favor of it.) Altogether, 22 senators voted in favor of both amendments, making it difficult to determine exactly where they stood on the "official language" question.
According to the 2000 United States Census, 18% of the U.S. population aged 5 or older (47 million people) speaks a language other than English at home. That figure has been growing rapidly in recent decades, up from 11% (23.1 million people) in 1980 and 14% (31.8 million people) in 1990. How to deal with the national language issue in a country where one language predominates but more and more people are speaking other languages is something Congress apparently hasn't yet decided.