English-Language Learners

GOP Candidates Court Voters in Spanish; Support English-Only Policies

By Lesli A. Maxwell — January 24, 2012 2 min read
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For a few minutes during last night’s debate in Florida, three of the four GOP presidential candidates explained why they believe English should be the official language of the United States.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were asked specifically why they support a policy of printing government documents—and potentially election ballots—only in English, but have no qualms about running Spanish television andradio advertisementsseeking votes.

Gingrich’s answer was to point out that while Spanish is the most widely-spoken language in the U.S. after English, it is just one among hundreds of others. To unify the country, he argued, requires a single language that all citizens share. He seemed to suggest that political campaigns are different because candidates have always been “willing to go to people on their terms and their culture...” to win support.

He also said that ballots should be in English, but that there could be programs “where virtually everybody would be able to read the ballots.” (PK12, by the way, explains Gingrich’s positionon the federal DREAM Act legislation.)

Romney, in a rare moment of agreement with Gingrich during last night’s debate, said his opponent was “right,” before pivoting to to talk about how in Massachusetts in 2002, he “campaigned for English immersion in our schools.”

Notably, when Romney was campaigning for governor in 2002, it was at the same time that voters were considering a ballot initiative to end bilingual education. Roger Rice, a Massachusetts-based civil rights lawyer who works on issues related to English learners, recalls that folks from both political parties, including the Republican governor at the time, Jane Swift, had come out to oppose Question 2—the ballot initiative to limit bilingual education—in favor of a legislative solution to ensure that more English learners in the state would learn the language.

But Romney, according to Rice, decided to make the matter a “wedge issue,” especially since his Democratic opponent, Shannon O’Brien, also favored the legislative solution backed by Gov. Swift. In his book that came out last year,Romney highlighted his position on bilingual education vs. English immersion.

Congressman Ron Paul—sticking to his belief that the federal government ought to leave states and localities to govern themselves—said that while English should be the national language, federal policymakers ought not to meddle in decisions about which languages appear on ballots.

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum didn’t get a shot at answering the question, but I doubt his answer would have differed much from his opponents, given his own stance on English-only.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.