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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. House Votes to Make English Official Language

WASHINGTON -- The House voted Wednesday to declare English the official language of the United States and limit the federal government from conducting business in foreign tongues, despite cries from opponents that the move was divisive and unnecessary.

By publishing bilingual government documents, requiring bilingual ballots and conducting routine government business in Spanish, French, Vietnamese or Tagalog, the federal government is discouraging many Americans from learning English, supporters said.

"In my district, I run across households and entire blocks where no one speaks English," said Republican Representative Duke Cunningham, a sponsor of the bill. "There's an increasing number of people like that who aren't motivated to learn English."

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in a rare floor speech, told colleagues to look north to Canada to see how dual languages can lead to strife. If it does not emphasize English, he said, the United States will experience "decay of the core parts of our civilization."

"Our greatness in part comes from our ability to be a melting pot," Gingrich said. "While I cherish every person who comes ... here legally and seeks to pursue happiness ... I want them to become American, and part of becoming American involves English."

But critics said the bill's supporters were creating a threat where there wasn't one. They noted that 97 percent of all Americans already speak English and that more than 99 percent of all government documents are printed in English.

"The bill we have before us today is unnecessary," said Democratic Representative Chet Edwards. "It is insulting. It is divisive and it is discriminatory."

Calling the bill absurd, Representative Bill Richardson, also a Democrat, quipped: "I think some cities are going to have to change their names -- maybe Dodgerville for Los Angeles."

The bill, approved 259-169, would forbid the publication of bilingual government documents, repeal the requirement that states prepare bilingual ballots in areas with significant immigrant populations and forbid government officials from conducting business in foreign languages. The bill specifically exempts foreign languages used to conduct international relations, trade, the census and national security. Foreign languages also could be used to help preserve the public health or safety, the bill says. The legislation, officially called the English Language Empowerment Act, says no person should be denied federal government services, assistance or facilities because they speak English. Anyone who felt wronged could file a special civil action.

The bill also would direct any cost-savings to bilingual education. But the Congressional Budget Office said the legislation actually might end up costing money if government offices are forced to hire more bilingual staff to handle inquiries that used to be handled through documents.

"Part of the problem is the ambiguity of the legislation," said Lisa Navarrete of the National Council of La Raza. "We think it discourages even more people from voting and opens the door to frivolous lawsuits if people are offended by the use of other languages. It might be worse than that."