News Column

English Only

May 2003, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Holly Ocasio Rizzo

In March, when Congressman Steve King of Iowa introduced the English Language Unity Act of 2003, he asked for the record to include research by only one private organization: U.S. English Inc.

The Washington, D.C.-based group had compiled newspaper stories and statistics to support Mr. King's bill. The articles document problems such as medical mistakes, evictions, car crashes, and legal entanglements - all attributed to lack of English-language proficiency. Additional statistics included the Education Department's finding that annual earnings by adults with limited English proficiency are about half those of the population as a whole.

"The reason Mr. King likes U.S. English is that the group includes common-sense exclusions to a blanket English-only position," says Melissa McKay, Mr. King's press secretary.

That practical attitude filters from the top: U.S. English chairman Mauro Mujica tells immigrants they have everything to gain from "official English" laws. "I haven't lost my culture, I gained culture," Mr. Mujica says. "Culture isn't something you put on and take off like a coat."

On the organization's Web site (www.us-english.org), Mr. Mujica lays out his argument. "Encouraging immigrants to learn English is not about bigotry or exclusion," he writes. "On the contrary, teaching newcomers English is one of
the strongest acts of inclusion to our society
our government can provide."

Although some people label the organization "English only," it's not. In fact, Mr. Mujica and his wife raised their two daughters and son to speak both Spanish and English. "Spanish is our family language," he says. "We speak it at home."

Mr. Mujica learned English in his native Chile, where it was compulsory for six years beginning in kindergarten. In high school, he spent a month traveling around the United States - which gave him enough of a taste to decide Columbia University was where he wanted to study architecture.

After founding his own firm and overseeing its growth to include 800 architects in 14 countries, Mr. Mujica retired at age 50. "I thought I would stay home and enjoy myself," he says. But his wife knew S.I. Hayakawa, the senator who first introduced an English-language amendment in Congress. To promote a common national language, Mr. Hayakawa founded U.S. English after leaving the Senate in 1983.

Mr. Mujica assumed the chairmanship of the organization after Mr. Hayakawa's death in 1992. Since then, the membership has grown from 160,000 to 1.7 million people. Still, U.S. English remains a grass-roots organization, without government grants or corporate sponsorship - something Mr. Mujica attributes to companies' fear of involvement in hot-button issues. "Our typical donation is $22," he says.

The organization's budget covers overhead and salaries at the Washington headquarters, as well as fees for political consultants hired in states where official-English bills and ballot measures are under consideration.

U.S. English also operates an education foundation independent from its political operation that promotes teaching English to immigrants. The foundation has researched how the predominant language is taught in nearly 60 countries. Mr. Mujica holds up as a model an Israeli school for immigrants that teaches cultural assimilation as well as Hebrew. "It would be great if we could do that here, so new immigrants wouldn't have to take jobs parking cars and frying eggs," he says.



Source: HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine


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