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Jewish World Review May 2, 2001 / 9 Iyar 5761

Don Feder

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Oakland builds Babel's Boarding House -- THE city that gave us Ebonics just established language quotas for municipal employment. Last week, Oakland's city council voted unanimously to require certain departments to fill vacancies with workers who are bilingual in either Spanish or Chinese until there's one such employee for every 10,000 residents who speak these tongues. (Thanks to porous borders, 35 percent of Oakland residents now are foreign-born.) San Francisco is expected to embrace the same language-coddling later this month.

At the council meeting, resident Carol Kolenda was jeered for stating the obvious, when she told immigrants, "It's your choice to learn the language or not learn the language."

Also last week, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Alexander vs. Sandoval, a challenge to Alabama's official English law. Prior to its approval by an 85 percent vote in 1990, Alabama gave drivers' tests in 15 languages, including Farsi. After the amendment passed, the test could only be taken in English.

Though she'd lived in America 17 years, Martha Sandoval never bothered to learn our language well enough to take an exam written in English. On the theory that her adopted country should adapt to her, Sandoval decided this was discriminatory. So did the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which held the law violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act. By a 5-to-4 majority, the Supreme Court reversed that ruling, holding a citizen can't sue a state under the act unless authorized by Congress.

It declined to rule on the constitutionality of official English, a stand against language fragmentation taken by 24 states to date. Jim Boulet of English First called the decision "a chilling reminder of the slender threads upon which hang the last shreds of our nation's linguistic unity."

Bill Clinton left that fabric in tatters. The lower court ruling in Sandoval was the excuse for Executive Order 13166, issued in July 2000, mandating that all federally funded entities, in areas with large immigrant populations, provide for bilingual communication in public contact positions.

Washington has been busy passing guidelines to implement the order. The Department of Justice now requires "competent" interpreter services at all security checkpoints, and reception and information desks -- at an undetermined cost to America's English-speaking taxpayers.

Congress could have the last word here. H.R. 969, with 50 cosponsors in the House, seeks to repeal Clinton's order. Given sufficient public involvement, the bill has a fair chance of passing. Bush could repeal 13166 without congressional involvement, if the White House didn't fear alienating alien lobbies.

At the Oakland council meeting, non-English speakers were compared to the handicapped. If we provide special assistance for the physically disabled, why not the language-impaired as well? it was argued. But those who don't learn English have chosen their disability.

The ACLU, which represented Sandoval, compared Alabama's English-only policy (for official business) to its whites-only policy of the 1960s -- a cunning but flawed analogy. Race is an innate characteristic. People aren't born in a language straitjacket.

It is an organizing principle of liberalism that America not only has a moral obligation to take in an unlimited number of immigrants, but the latter has an absolute right to the delivery of tax-funded services in the language of their choice.

This diversity dogma could soon result in a national crisis. Today, 10 percent of our nation is foreign-born. The Census Bureau projects that over the next half-century, two-thirds of all population growth will be due to future immigrants and their descendants.

If newcomers can't talk to us and those from other lands, what will become of our nation? How can we reason together if we can't communicate with each other?

Will Americans of the future have to take a 15-language electronic translator to the supermarket? Will high-school classrooms resemble sessions of the General Assembly, with simultaneous translation over headsets?

How can immigrants identify with America if they can't read Lincoln's words in the language in which they were spoken? Will we devolve from e pluribus unum (out of many, one) to a multicultural boarding house, whose fractious tenants babble at each other incomprehensively in a welter of tongues?

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest books are Who is afraid of the Religious Right? ($15.95) and A Jewish conservative looks at pagan America ($9.95). To receive an autographed copy, send a check or money order to: Don Feder, The Boston Herald, 1 Herald Sq., Boston, Mass. 02106. Doing so will help fund JWR, if so noted. He is also available as a guest speaker. To comment on this column please click here.


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© 2001, Creators Syndicate