‘English Only’ Advocates Target Bill on Puerto Rico

By Peter Schmidt — October 18, 1989 8 min read

Washington--Advocates of a constitutional amendment to make English the official language of the United States are lobbying to change a Senate bill that they fear would enable Puerto Rico to become the first Spanish-speaking state.

The bill, which has attracted little public attention, cleared a major committee hurdle in August and is awaiting consideration by another panel this fall. It calls for a referendum by Puerto Rican voters in 1991 to choose among statehood, independence, or an “enhanced” form of the island’s current status as a self-governing U.S. commonwealth.

Representatives of English First and U.S. English, two organizations that have championed controversial “English only” measures at the state and federal levels, say they are not opposed to statehood for the West Indian island. But, they contend, Puerto Rico should not be allowed to join the Union without agreeing to eventually adopt English as its official language.

Such a commitment, they say, should include taking whatever steps are necessary to promote the increased use of English in the island’s public schools, where Spanish is the principal language of instruction.

“If Puerto Rico wants to join the Union, they shouldn’t expect and we shouldn’t expect for the federal government to become bilingual just to accommodate one of 51 states,” P. George Tryfiates, executive director of English First, said in a recent interview.

“This country is an English-speaking nation, and if you are going to join that nation you should do that with your eyes open,” he said.

Luis Acle, a consultant on government and media relations for U.S. English, said in testimony at a Senate hearing last summer: “English, besides being the language of government, is the language of social, political, and economic opportunity. Not knowing English in the United States enslaves you to persons who do, and creates a class of citizens dependent on others.”

‘Violation of My Rights’

The admission of Puerto Rico to the Union as a Spanish-speaking state, those following the issue say, could deal a final blow to the two groups’ flagging campaign to promote an official-language amendment to the Constitution.

But if the adoption of English as the island’s official language were made a condition of statehood, those observers add, the chances of Puerto Ricans’ opting to join the Union would be greatly reduced.

All of the three major political parties in Puerto Rico favor keeping Spanish as the island’s official language. The New Progressive Party, which supports statehood, has called for the wording of any referendum on the island’s status to include an assurance of the continued use of Spanish there.

Commonwealth officials say virtually all of Puerto Rico’s citizens speak Spanish and about 65 percent speak at least some English.

“It is an imposition and a violation of my rights as a citizen to declare that my first language has to be English,” said Ramon E. Daubon, vice president of the National Puerto Rican Coalition, an umbrella organization representing 90 groups.

In an interview last week, Mr.Daubon accused the official-English advocates of being motivated by a desire “to exclude any political debate that is not in English.”

“If we want to have a political discussion in Spanish because it is our language, it is our right to do so,” he said.

“The notion that the United States has a homogeneous, English-speaking population is nonsense,” he added. “This is not an immigrant issue. This is an issue of a minority-language population.”

Such sentiments are echoed by supporters of bilingual education, who see a potential threat to their programs in official-language measures.

James J. Lyons, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, accused the official-English groups of “subtly questioning the loyalty of Puerto Ricans,” who have held U.S. citizenship since 1917.

“The fundamental problem with the English-only advocates,” Mr. Lyons said, “is that they confuse language with loyalty. They confuse using English with being an American.”

Issue Skirted by Committee

So far, the Senate has deliberately avoided the issue of language in moving toward a referendum on Puerto Rico’s status.

The Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over issues involving territorial possessions, removed any provisions on language from the referendum bill before approving it last summer on an 11-to-8 vote.

The measure, S 712, is now awaiting consideration by the Finance Committee, which must deal with its provisions on taxation and other economic issues.

Senator J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources panel and sponsor of the bill, said his committee agreed to remain silent on the language issue because “it is unnecessary to deal with it in this legislation.” That position was supported by the Bush Administration, which favors statehood for Puerto Rico.

“We believed that the matter of whether or not there should be an official language of the United States is a national issue, not only one affecting Puerto Rico,” Senator Johnston said, “and whatever federal legislation is passed in the future on this issue will and should apply to Puerto Rico [if it chooses statehood] in the same manner as it would apply to each of the other 50 states.”

In hearings before Mr. Johnston’s committee, advocates of an official language maintained that the issue must be dealt with before Puerto Rico votes on statehood, not after.

Failure to do so, they argued, could lead to future pressures to declare the United States officially bilingual. They cited the example of Canada, which adopted two official languages as a way of accommodating its French-speaking province of Quebec.

Representatives of English First urged the panel to adopt guarantees that the federal and state governments would never be under an obligation to use a language other than English.

In addition, they said, a Puerto Rican state should promote the acquisition of the English language and emphasize it as the basis of a common U.S. culture.

The official-language advocates have been hesitant to spell out how an English-language mandate would apply to Puerto Rico’s public schools.

Questions About Schools

Mr. Tryfiates said English First has no stand on specific educational issues linked with statehood.

Yale Newman, director of research and communications for U.S. English, expressed a similar view, saying that the manner in which the Puerto Rican educational system implemented such a mandate would be “up to them.”

He added, however, that “if Puerto Rico is to become a member of the United States, and its children are to be brought into the mainstream of the economy and the mainstream of the national educational system, those children must know English.”

Currently, English is a required course for all elementary and secondary students in the Puerto Rican schools, but all other classes are taught in Spanish.

If Puerto Rico became a state, officials of the commonwealth’s education department said, any change in the language policy of the island’s schools would be decided in the legislature and implemented through the department. Below the central department in San Juan are seven regional and 100 local school districts.

Shifting Policies

Any measure making English the official language of instruction in Puerto Rico, warned Mr. Lyons of the bilingual-education association, would “plunge the school system back into the dark ages.”

Such a requirement would not be unprecedented for Puerto Rican schools, however.

English was declared the language of instruction for secondary schools in Puerto Rico soon after Spain ceded the island to the United States in 1898, and students at all levels were taught in English by 1912. The policy seesawed several times between mandates for English and Spanish before Puerto Rico became a U.S. commonwealth in 1952. Since then, Spanish has been the language of the public schools and other government agencies.

Mr. Lyons said the initial decision to make English the language of instruction “devastated education” on the island. The ensuing debate and policy reversals were “to the detriment of everyone,” he added.

Support Lacking

Seventeen states now have laws declaring English to be the official language, although only four were enacted by popular vote. Most recently, official-English amendments to state constitutions were approved last fall by voters in Florida, Colorado, and Arizona.

But such proposals have languished at the federal level, and spokesmen for the official-English movement concede that they face an uphill fight to add comparable provisions to the referendum bill for Puerto Rico.

Mr. Tryfiates said no one on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee was willing to advocate amendments to S 712 proposed by English First. As of this month, he said, his group has not lined up support for the next stages of the legislative process.

“At this point, it is just a question of education, and getting people interested in the issue,” he said.

Allen Stayman, a staff aide for the Energy Committee, said the Finance Committee and other Senate panels that could review aspects of the bill were unlikely to address the language issue because it is deemed outside their jurisdictions. “Any amendment would be debatable and controversial,” he said.

No version of the bill has yet been introduced in the House.

Money Issues Predominant

For now, most of the Congressional attention to questions of Puerto Rico’s status center on the impact for U.S. taxpayers if the island opted for statehood or independence.

The federal government spends about $6.2 billion a year in Puerto Rico. About $2.9 billion goes directly to individuals, and $2.4 billion is channeled through grants for nutrition and other programs.

Although the island’s 3.3 million residents are included in all federal entitlement programs, current formulas prevent them from receiving full benefits. Under statehood, benefits would rise to the level of those given to residents of other states.

Puerto Ricans already receive full benefits under the major federal education programs, including Chapter 1 compensatory education, Chapter 2 block grants, and student financial aid.

The Energy Committee projects that Puerto Rican independence would save the federal Treasury $18.7 billion during the proposed 1992-2000 transition period, during which various forms of aid could be phased out. It estimates that statehood would produce a $13.6-billion net gain in the form of federal taxes that Puerto Ricans are not currently subject to.

A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 1989 edition of Education Week as ‘English Only’ Advocates Target Bill on Puerto Rico