Washington — In an impassioned debate laden with symbolism, the Senate voted 63-34 Thursday to declare English the national language as it continued to debate legislation that would put millions of illegal immigrants on track to U.S. citizenship.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., denounced the amendment as racist and joined other opponents in warning that it could undercut long-established civil rights law.
The amendment's lead sponsor, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., bristled at the assertion, saying the proposal would unify the nation's increasingly diverse population and wouldn't dismantle existing legal protections.
The first Senate vote on the issue in more than two decades illuminated the emotional divisions over Congress' efforts to craft legislation to deal with as many as 12 million immigrants who've entered the country illegally in search of better-paying jobs.
The Senate is considering nearly two dozen amendments on a comprehensive plan to grant legal status to many illegal immigrants and create a temporary guest-worker program to help fill what U.S. business leaders say is a chronic labor shortage. A final vote on the measure is expected next week.
Despite the intensity of the arguments on both sides, it was unclear what impact, if any, Inhofe's English-language amendment would have if it becomes law. Senators further confused the situation by accepting a softer alternative declaring English "the common and unifying language of the United States." The vote on that one, sponsored by Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., was 58-39.
Salazar, one of three Hispanic senators, whose family settled in Colorado before it became a state, asserted that the Inhofe amendment threatened a return "to the dark days of American history" when Hispanic children were punished for speaking Spanish in school, sometimes by having soap thrust in their mouths.
In response, Inhofe said his proposal would put the U.S. government in line with 27 states and 51 countries that declare English the prevailing language. He called Reid's "racist" tag a ridiculous charge and accused opponents of demagoguery.
"This is your last chance to have English as the national language," he told colleagues.
Supporters suggested that the measure will be especially needed as millions of illegal immigrants and future foreign workers get on track for U.S. citizenship.
Senators said both amendments would be part of negotiations with the House of Representatives to reconcile differences in the two chambers' immigration plans. Asked whether the language amendments would have any effect, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the Senate's leading architects on immigration legislation, responded: "Not that I know of."
The bill already requires English proficiency as a condition for illegal immigrants to obtain permanent legal status and citizenship over an 11-year period. At least 215 million of the nearly 300 million U.S. residents speak English, but the diverse population otherwise constitutes a linguistic melting pot, speaking as many as 176 languages. Spanish is the second most common, spoken by 28 million people.