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English-only advocates see barriers to bill easing up

By Lou Dobbs
CNN

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Lou Dobbs
Government

(CNN) -- It's official in Zimbabwe and Belize, but not in the United States. This country is a notable exception to the 51 nations in which English is an official language. But a new bill in Congress aims to change that.

The English Language Unity Act of 2005 is only the latest of many attempts to make English the official language of the United States. The bill's sponsor, U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, also tried to get the bill past the 108th Congress, but it stalled in the House of Representatives.

A similar bill passed the House in 1996 but expired when the Senate failed to act on it. Previous versions have passed the Senate but died in the House. Overall, Congress has been dismissing official-English legislation for more than two decades.

But supporters say they think the current climate in Washington is promising for passage of this bill.

"Certainly, the discussion about immigration and assimilation is reaching a high point, as it did in the 1980s. So we're hoping that we [can] start to talk about what it means to be an American again," said Rob Toonkel, director of communications at U.S. English Inc., an organization that seeks to legislate English as the country's official language.

The bill's opponents, however, say it's unnecessary and may even have negative consequences.

Gabriela Lemus, director of policy and legislation at the League of United Latin American Citizens, said it's a given that "in order to make it in this country, you have to speak English."

Lemus said the bill has little chance to gain support in Congress, as any party embracing the issue would risk alienating the Hispanic community in the United States.

But surveys show that the public would support the legislation. A 2004 Zogby poll released by U.S. English found that more than four out of five Americans favor making English the official language.

Proponents have been successful at the state level. Beginning with Louisiana in 1812, 27 states have adopted some form of official-English law.

Despite having the smallest percentage of foreign-language speakers in the country, West Virginia nearly became the 28th state to approve English-only legislation. West Virginia's Legislature passed the bill, but Gov. Joe Manchin vetoed it last weekend because of a technical flaw in the drafting of the bill.

The Arizona Legislature is evaluating another such bill. If passed by the state Senate, the measure would go to voters in 2006. Arizona passed English-only legislation in the late 1980s, but the state's Supreme Court found it violated the First Amendment.

Toonkel said that bill, which was drafted without U.S. English's backing, tried to limit communications in other languages. But U.S. English is confident the current federal bill will not present any constitutional conflicts, he said.

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