The immigration debate in Congress has hit several low points of mean-spirited dimness, and could go lower still, but on Thursday it came pretty close to rock bottom. By a vote of 63 to 34, the Senate tacked onto its immigration bill an amendment from Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma that declares English to be "the national language of the United States." If you thought otherwise, or weren't sure, well, now you know: We speak English here. None of that "Oprima número dos."
If the amendment merely stated the achingly obvious, it might be nothing to get upset about. Senator Ken Salazar, Democrat of Colorado, offered an amendment asserting, nonbindingly, that English is the language that unites us all. That one was passed, too. But Mr. Inhofe and his allies weren't looking to make a statement about our shared heritage.
They made another point — one that is exclusionary, potentially discriminatory and embarrassingly hostile to the rest of the world.
"Unless otherwise authorized or provided by law," the Inhofe amendment says, "no person has a right, entitlement or claim to have the government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services, or provide materials in any language other than English." It goes on to insist that new citizens be tested for knowledge of English and of certain pillars of American civics, like the Federalist Papers and "The Star-Spangled Banner."
People who struggle with the language don't need to be told how important English fluency is in America. If Mr. Inhofe wanted to lavish federal money on English-language classes, now overwhelmed with immigrants on waiting lists, such a step would do more to advance the cause of English and assimilation than any xenophobic amendment.
Mr. Inhofe flubbed the national anthem a little in the Senate debate (it's "our flag" that was still there, not "the flag"). And he would have done well to require knowledge of other important aspects of American history, too, like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing movement and the Ku Klux Klan.
This country has always come to regret official actions that exclude and alienate large populations of newcomers. It has never stood prouder than when it greeted them with openness and confidence, in the spirit behind the motto "E pluribus unum." Sorry — make that "Out of many, one."