The Senate voted to make English the “national language’’ of the U.S. as part of legislation overhauling immigration policy.
The measure, approved by a vote of 63-34, directs the government to “preserve and enhance’’ the role of English, without altering current laws that require some government documents and services be provided in other languages.
“I don’t see how you can unify the United States of America unless we have a national language,’’ Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander said. “English is part of our national identity. It’s part of our spirit. It’s part of our blood. It’s part of who we are.’’
The amendment was added to legislation senators are considering that would strengthen border security, create a new guest-worker program and allow an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status.
Opponents of the language provision said it would cause employees of the federal government to avoid using languages other than English even in warning signs or emergency communications for fear of breaking the law.
The amendment would create “an obstacle for those who are trying to achieve public safety and public health,’’ said Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin. “Why do we need to do this?’’
Consideration of the English-language amendment was held up for a day as lawmakers negotiated its wording. The final version, sponsored by Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma, calls for making English the “national’’ language, which was a change from an earlier draft that termed it the “official’’ language.
Democrat Ken Salazar of Colorado offered a competing amendment that would make English the “common and unifying language of America.’’ He said Inhofe’s proposal would “create division within the country’’ by addressing “a problem that does not exist.’’
The Inhofe amendment states that there is no right to receive government documents or services in other languages, and the government can’t be sued for not providing foreign language services, “unless otherwise authorized or provided by law.’’
The amendment also sets requirements that immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship know the English language and U.S. history.
While considering amendments to the legislation during the past four days, lawmakers also have approved limiting the size of the guest-worker program to 200,000 visas per year and endorsed building 350 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Senate has rejected amendments that would have eliminated the guest-worker program and removed the path to legal status for those in the U.S. illegally.