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20.05.2006 US & Canada

US language rule upsets immigrants

By Reuters
US language rule upsets immigrants

A day after the US Senate proposed declaring English the national language, Californians wondered on Friday what all the fuss was about. Most immigrants embrace English, and Spanish exists happily alongside.

"I do have my own language; but I do feel that if you are here, want a career and a good life, you should embrace English," said Spanish-speaking immigrant and cafe manager Sam Simonian.

On the streets of heavily Hispanic Los Angeles, both Latinos and non-Latinos said what was decided on Capitol Hill wouldn't change their plans to learn the language.

"If you went to France, you would learn French. This country is built on English, so you need to learn it," said Elmira Ross.

Seeking to add an amendment to the contentious immigration reform bill, the Senate agreed on Thursday to make English the national language and moments later also adopted a milder alternative calling English the country's "unifying language."

Which version ends up in the bill will depend on negotiations with the US House of Representatives.

"President Bush has long opposed making English the country's national language," Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general, told reporters on Friday, but he did not say where the president stood on the amendment.

Cultural chauvinism?

Neither proposal would bar the use of Spanish or other languages in government services.

In Los Angeles, some saw the Senate move as an overture to conservatives who say immigrants are destroying the American identity, while pro-immigrant activists denounced it as chauvinistic.

"It is cultural chauvinism at its best and reactionary nativism at its worst," said Nativo Lopez, president of the Mexican-American Political Association.

"It is premised on the false notion that new immigrants cannot be assimilated, which is false. And that has been demonstrated repeatedly in history."

Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor of political science at the University of California at Riverside, said the Senate's move likely stirred up controversy where there wasn't any.

"It is a highly charged symbolic issue and conservatives care about it more than liberals or even Latino advocates," he said.

Embedded in culture

Ramakrishnan said it might also be a reaction to a Spanish version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," which aired in Hispanic media this month and many Latino activists think backfired.

In a place where many of the city names hark back to the Spanish missions, immigration activist Oscar Sanchez said Spanish was simply "embedded in our culture."

"Are we going to change the names of cities? What are you going to call San Jose or San Diego or San Francisco, if you look at the rules?" he asked.

"Changing French fries to freedom fries didn't work, did it?"