English only in government in a State of Puerto Rico? Not in the U.S. Senate.
Last week, a senator, Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), delivered a major speech during a debate exclusively in Spanish.
Kaine’s remarks were the first in the Senate to be made totally in Spanish. But they were not the first time that a senator had used Spanish in debate. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), one of the Senate’s most conservative members, has used Spanish in the Senate. So did then Senator Mel Martinez (R-Florida).
And Spanish is not the only language other than English to be used in the Senate.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has used sign language. And then Sen. Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) put a statement in the Congressional Record in Lakota, a Native American language.
Leaders of Puerto Rico’s “commonwealth” party have encouraged advocates of English as the official language of the United States to propose that Puerto Rico be required to use English exclusively in government if it is granted statehood. The purpose is to discourage Puerto Ricans from seeking equality in the country since most residents of Puerto Rico primarily speak Spanish.
One of the “commonwealth” party’s closest allies in Congress, Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois), has tried to emphasize the point in the U.S. House of Representatives by proposing amendments to require that Spanish be the sole official language of a State of Puerto Rico.
Both English and Spanish are official languages in the territory.
Amendments to bills in the U.S. House that included statehood as an option for the territory which would have purportedly required a State of Puerto Rico to conduct all business in English were handily defeated by a Republican-controlled House in 1998 and a Democratic-controlled House in 2010.
The amendments were replaced by amendments stating that Federal language requirements in a State of Puerto Rico would be the same as those that apply to the other States and encouraging the teaching of English in Puerto Rico.
The U.S. has never adopted an official language despite a debate as old as the nation.
Other House members almost universally rejected Gutierrez’s amendments.
Congress has the power under the U.S. Constitution to mandate an official language in a territory — Puerto Rico’s current political status. But a State would have the authority under the Constitution to ignore a language requirement imposed upon a territory — even if it is a stated condition for the grant of statehood.
Surveys show that most Puerto Ricans want their children to learn English. The main international language of business, it is recognized as a tool for economic opportunity by most Puerto Ricans.
Puerto Ricans predominantly spoke Spanish when the United States took Puerto Rico from Spain and made the islands a U.S. territory and when the U.S. made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens.
Their use of Spanish has not been a significant problem for the States. Many miles of ocean separate the islands from the States. Additionally, Puerto Ricans learn English — if they have not before — when they move to the States, which they can do freely since they are U.S. citizens by birth.
Hawaii, a State with many circumstances similar to Puerto Rico’s, also has two official languages. And the other State separated from the 48 continental States, Alaska, uses at least seven languages in government to communicate with its citizens.