Alaska Editorial: Language should not be a barrier to voting

Posted: Monday, July 17, 2006

This editorial appeared in the Ketchikan Daily News:

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Spanish isn't the only foreign language spoken by immigrants and newly naturalized citizens in the United States.

Tagalog has long been a language of Filipino immigrants. Others immigrants come from European nations, Southeast Asia and the Middle East and each person speaks a native tongue; some didn't learn English before coming here, and, like the Spanish-speaking, have struggled when it comes to understanding American politics and ballot documents - if those are understood by even the English speaking.

The House of Representatives has affirmed the right of voters in areas with large populations of non-English-speaking citizens to cast ballots in their native language.

Opponents argue that those who have the good fortune to be able to vote in the United States should be required to do it in English. There is an effort to make English the national language. They don't believe the U.S. government should have to go to the expense of paying for election materials in a wide variety of languages, and it would be a number of languages. The government, if it adopted this measure, couldn't discriminate against some who might speak the most obscure language.

Immigrants in the early 1900s, like immigrants of other periods, brought native languages to this country. If they didn't learn to speak English, then their children, grandchildren and other descendants did.

Through the generations, the immigrant families became mainstream and spoke English. That's what is happening with more recent immigrants.

Today's media and free enterprise makes it easier today for immigrants with Spanish-speaking TV channels, radio stations and periodicals to get information about American politics. Candidates' comments are translated into Spanish and other languages.

To determine whether those translations are accurate and to be able to respond to the Spanish-language news reports, candidates have to employ linguists or learn to speak Spanish or, in similar cases, other foreign languages. President Bush tackles Spanish every now and then. But how he or any other candidate communicates effectively with other non-English-speaking Americans is a dilemma handled as best as possible with translators.

About 500 political subdivisions in 31 states are required to offer bilingual assistance, says The Associated Press. Of those states, five - including Alaska - must provide assistance statewide.

While the House measure bends over backwards to aid new American citizens, it also is expensive and necessary as long as the nation continues to welcome immigrants. The United States is a nation of immigrants and unlikely to be anything else. There is a movement to reduce the flow of immigrants here. Recent reports say 11 million immigrants are here illegally, a fact that also increases expense for American taxpayers.

Additionally, if the bureaucracy is built to provide the array of foreign-language ballot materials, it would be difficult to downsize it later.

Supporters of the measure argue that the intent is to assist naturalized American citizens who have yet to learn English. They say they shouldn't be discriminated against and their right to vote shouldn't be impeded by a language barrier. Opponents rebut that argument by pointing out that they aren't discriminated against; English is taught in America to any citizen who wants to learn it. Of course, circumstances make that difficult in some cases.

The measure will have to be passed by the Senate and signed by President before it takes effect.

No American citizen, regardless of the language spoken, should be denied the right to vote. Every reasonable accommodation should be made on these people's behalf, just as it would be for people with a hearing or sight impediment.

But immigrants also need to meet the nation halfway and learn the language of the land. And they will; it's just a matter of enough time to learn English. They adopt American ways of dressing, our sports and our cuisine (we enjoy the new recipes they bring here, too), for just a few examples. They'll adopt our language.

In the meantime, they need bilingual assistance at the polls. And, as American citizens and taxpayers, they are paying for it.

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