There’s no telling how much money the government could save if it were to stop asking Americans to “Press 2 for Spanish.”
What is clear, according to those pushing the change, is that President Trump could do it with the stroke of a pen. Why he hasn’t done so remains shrouded.
Since the dawn of the 21st century, the U.S. government has operated under mandatory translation rules for its documents and services, a pricey option that President Bill Clinton imposed via executive order near the end of his tenure in August 2000.
In essence, the order meant that if a person with limited or no English language skills had a problem with accessing federal services, then that was the government’s problem.
Mr. Clinton’s move “required federal agencies to examine the services they provide, identify any need for services to those with limited English efficiency (LEP), and develop and implement a system to provide those services so LEP persons can have meaningful access to them,” according to the description provided at LEP.gov, a website created to help the process.
The last time federal officials took a look at the cost, during the first term of President George W. Bush, the Office of Management and Budget fixed it at $2 billion annually. If that price has held steady, then it would mean taxpayers have shelled out more than $30 billion on mandated translations of the government’s business.
That bill is simply for translating documents and requiring translators in any domestic government action. The U.S. spends hundreds of millions of dollars more with contractors to the military and intelligence agencies, and the cost has ballooned since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Those pushing for English to be made the official language of the U.S. say that’s outrageous.
Stephen Guschov, executive director of ProEnglish, said it’s time to repeal the Clinton order.
“The government must stop placing this onerous and costly translation and interpretation burden on Americans, and President Trump has the ability to do so on a speedy basis via a new executive order,” he said.
This would seem ripe for the Trump administration.
Mr. Trump has often expressed his opinion that English is an important component of assimilation for immigrants. During his time in Congress, Vice President Mike Pence co-sponsored the English Language Unity Act five times.
The act has been introduced again this year in both the House and the Senate, led by Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican.
Administration staffers had five meetings with ProEnglish last year, but they produced no indication of whether the administration would support either chamber’s bill.
“The 2018 meetings were productive, informative and helpful,” said Mr. Guschov, declining to offer specifics.
The White House did not respond to questions.
Opponents say removing accommodations for non-English speakers would marginalize them.
They say it also would clash with the country’s history of accommodation dating back to the time when the Constitution was printed in German and Dutch, catering to non-English-speaking populations in Pennsylvania and New York.
The Justice Department’s immigration court system now has translation capability for 350 languages.
Although Mr. Clinton’s executive order covers all tongues, Spanish is the most prevalent one given the demographics of immigration and the emergence of entire communities where there is no need to learn English.
“This is driven by immigration policy, not a lack of declarations,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “If you are going to take in 1 million people a year, every year, from abroad, you are going to end up with a multilingual country.”
He said he would support legislation to make English the national language but that it’s more important for Congress to curb the massive influx of largely Spanish-speaking immigrants.
America has always had a rich mixture of languages, he said, but limited English had been seen as an impediment to assimilation rather than something to be accommodated and thus encouraged.
The concept of English-only laws has overwhelming support with the American public.
Rasmussen has been asking about official English for years and said last April that the percentage approving the position has moved within a range of 83 percent to 87 percent since 2006, with only 12 percent thinking English should not the official language of the U.S.
Yet history is littered with broken congressional attempts to enact such a law. In 1981, Sen. S.I. Hayakawa, California Republican, proposed an amendment to do so, but it failed. In 2006, the Senate passed an amendment to its comprehensive immigration bill declaring English the national language, but the House never acted on that bill.
• James Varney can be reached at email@example.com.
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