A CAMPAIGN to declare English the official national language is gaining momentum in the Republican-led Congress and has become a hot political topic for Washington's heavy hitters and 1996 presidential hopefuls.
While the majority of Americans are proficient in English, there has never been a federal law establishing English as the official language of the United States. And yet the language has survived through more than nearly 400 years of immigration.
According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of foreign-born people in the United States has been growing at a record pace. More than 22.6 million people in this country -- 8.7 percent -- are immigrants. From 1990 to 1994, nearly as many immigrants entered the country -- 4.5 million -- as did during all of the 1970s.
Those numbers -- paired with an overall economic uncertainty among Americans -- have pushed the movement outside of political circles into the realm of average Americans.
According to a poll published in September by U.S. News and World Report, 73 percent of Americans think English should be the official language. Polls conducted by USA Today, the Houston Chronicle and the San Francisco Chronicle in recent months have found similar support for an official national language.
"America is no longer a melting pot; it's a tossed salad," says Rep. Toby Roth, a Republican from Wisconsin, who is backing one of the bills on Capitol Hill. "People in this country are breaking off into groups. We're one nation, one people. We need to strengthen the common bond that holds us together, and that's language."
The Republican-led campaign raises complex questions about immigration, the economy and diversity in America. It comes at a time when American attitudes toward immigrants -- legal and illegal -- seem to be souring.
Sen. Bob Dole, the GOP's leading presidential aspirant, spotlighted the issue in a Labor Day speech when he joined fellow Republicans Patrick J. Buchanan, Richard Lugar, Pete Wilson and House Speaker Newt Gingrich in calling for English to become the official government language.
Speaking to the national convention of the American Legion in Indianapolis, Mr. Dole said: "With all the divisive forces tearing at our country, we need the glue of language to help hold us together. If we want to ensure that all our children have the same opportunities in life, alternative language education should stop and English should be acknowledged once and for all as the official language of the United States."
But opponents argue that the proposals to make English the official national language are punitive and divisive.
President Clinton is one such critic. In a Sept. 28 address to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Mr. Clinton rejected proposals to make English the national language and said Americans should embrace multiculturalism.
"Of course English is the official language of the United States," Mr. Clinton told a cheering audience at the Washington Hilton Hotel. "The issue is not whether English is our language. The issue is whether or not we are going to value the culture, the traditions of everybody."
Mr. Clinton has been spending much time this fall defending immigration.
"We should never, ever, ever permit ourselves to get into a position where we forget that almost everybody here came from somewhere else, and that America is a set of ideas and values and convictions that make us strong," he said in a Labor Day speech in California.
In 1987, as governor of Arkansas, Mr. Clinton signed into law a bill declaring English the official language of that state. In 1992, during the presidential campaign, Mr. Clinton was questioned about the bill, and said he "probably shouldn't have signed" it.
"I agreed to sign it only after we changed the law to make it clearer that it would not affect bilingual education, something that I have always strongly supported," he said at a meeting of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
Although White House aides insist Mr. Clinton's actions as governor are being "misconstrued," the Arkansas bill is likely to haunt him as the 1996 presidential election nears.
Efforts to make English the official language in Maryland have not been popular with the state's governors. Gov. Parris N. Glendening threatened to veto an official-English measure in May, calling such legislation "punitive" and discouraging to immigrants who want to live and work in Maryland. And last year, Gov. William Donald Schaefer vetoed a version of official-English -- one of his last acts in office.
Opponents of the proposed federal legislation say it fails to acknowledge that many immigrants strongly desire to learn English, but there is a shortage of English instruction.
"These are short-sighted and counterproductive proposals," says Karen Hanson of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), a Mexican-American policy group. "Sending children off to attend classes they don't understand and cutting citizens off from the political process is mean-spirited and un-American and does nothing to unite the citizens of this country," she says of proposals to end bilingual education and the use of bilingual ballots.
According to NCLR, there are more than 31 million Americans, or one in eight, who speak a language other than English at home. Spanish speakers make up the majority -- 55 percent -- of other-than-English speakers.
"This movement assumes that immigrants need the additional coercive power of the government to learn the language, when what they really need is education programs and time to learn," Ms. Hanson says.
Bilingual educators worry that abolishing their programs will disenfranchise an already marginal community of immigrants.
"These are essentially immigrant-bashing bills that smack of nativism," says Rick Lopez of the National Association for Bilingual Education.
"Although the genesis of the current anti-immigrant movement might be traced to Pete Wilson's early '90s California, the debate itself reaches back to 1776," Mr. Lopez says. "The Founding Fathers rejected the notion of an official language. They decided people came to this country not because of a common language but because of a common set of beliefs."
With more than 300 languages now spoken in the United States, experts say, the movement to make English the official language addresses the fears many Americans harbor about immigrants' native languages and cultures -- especially Spanish and Latino cultures -- and their potential to supplant the use of English and overwhelm the prevailing American culture.
"The acceptance of foreign language has gone up and down throughout this country's history," says Ralph Fasold, chairman of the linguistics department at Georgetown University. "Times of international conflict [have] affected this in the past. Today, we have people all around us with foreign cultures and different accents and languages, and that may make people uncomfortable."
"We should value the use of these languages in this country. Language is not an either/or, it's a both/and," Dr. Fasold says. "I'm afraid we're throwing away a resource we could have for free."
Although Dr. Fasold insists that the pressure or desire to learn FTC English in America could not be greater, advocates of the English-only legislation argue that the government's accommodation of languages other than English removes an incentive for immigrants to learn the language. Some stress the potential divisiveness of multilingualism and point to the capacity for a national language to unite Americans.
'A common language'
James Boulet, the executive director of English First, a group pushing for the elimination of bilingual education and ballots, says:
"We live in a very diverse country, with people bringing languages and cultures from all around the world, and we need a common language to unite us. The government is making states and localities accommodate these languages, keeping immigrants fluent only in their native tongues."
U.S. English, a lobbying group, supports making English the nation's official language, but stops short of calling for an end to bilingual education and ballots.
"We endorse the knowledge and use of a second language," Ms. Hess says. "But the government shouldn't be required to function in these languages. It's inefficient and expensive to taxpayers. Ours is a common-sense measure recognizing that language provides a common bond. As a nation, we need this."
Since 1970, nearly 23 million immigrants, legal and illegal, have come to the United States. Seventy-five percent settle in the urban pockets of just six states.
The current national movement follows legislation enacted by more than 20 states to make English the official state language.
Nebraska started the trend in 1920, with an amendment aimed at immigrants speaking German.
Most other states have passed their legislation over the past 15 years, as concern about the influx of Hispanic and Asian immigrants grew.
Making English the official language of a state stirs the same controversy as the prospect of making it a national language.
Arizona, for instance, passed a law making English its state language in 1988 and prohibiting state and local government workers from conducting business in any language but English. The law, however, has never been enforced because of a series of court challenges.
Last December, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the law violates freedom of speech and is "unconstitutional in its entirety."
Kerry A. White is a researcher and contributing writer for the Washington Bureau of The Sun.