Friday, May 19, 2006

Senate says English is national, unifying tongue

Senate says English is national, unifying tongue
By Donna Smith

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate agreed on Thursday to make English the national language of the United States and moments later also adopted a milder alternative calling English the country's "unifying language."

Which amendment ends up in the final version of an overhaul of U.S. immigration law will depend on negotiations with the U.S. House of Representatives. Neither would bar the use of Spanish or other languages in government services.

The Senate immigration plan couples tightened border security and enforcement and a guest-worker program with measures giving a path to citizenship to some of the 12 million illegal immigrants, most from Spanish-speaking nations.

"This is not just about preserving our culture and heritage, but also about bettering the odds for our nation's newest potential citizens," said Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, who sponsored the national language amendment, which passed by a vote of 63-34.

The United States currently has no official language and some lawmakers said they feared Inhofe's amendment would lead to discrimination against people who are not proficient in English. They also said it could hurt efforts to promote public health and safety in other languages.

"Although the intent may not be there, I really believe this amendment is racist. I believe it is directed at people who speak Spanish," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said.

The issue is politically popular, and in a congressional election year lawmakers strongly supported both measures. Inhofe said opinion polls showed 84 percent of Americans supported making English the national language.

The Senate, by 58-39, also agreed to an alternative offered by Sen. Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat, stating "English is the common and unifying language of the United States that helps provide unity for the people of the United States."

President George W. Bush backs immigration reform close to what the Senate is considering and visited Arizona on Thursday to press his plan to send up to 6,000 National Guard troops to the Mexican border. While not specifically endorsing the Senate amendment, Bush spoke of the need to unite Americans.

"We've got to honor the great American tradition of the melting pot," Bush said. "Americans are bound together by shared ideals and appreciation of our history, of respect for our flag and ability to speak the English language."


Many of Bush's own Republicans, particularly in the House, oppose giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, saying it amounts to amnesty.

The Senate killed an amendment that would have denied a chance for permanent status and eventual citizenship to illegal immigrants who have been in the country less than five years and to any future immigrants who enter the country under the guest-worker program.

Opponents said the amendment, offered by Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, would have gutted the bipartisan bill that allows guest workers an opportunity to seek permanent residence.

Senators are pushing to complete the immigration bill by the end of next week. But it would still face tough negotiations with the House.

Also on Thursday, the Senate rejected an effort to limit Social Security benefits for illegal immigrants who would become permanent residents under an immigration overhaul.

(Additional reporting by Joanne Kenen in Washington)