Testimony on Puerto Rico Statehood

Testimony of
Mauro E. Mujica
Chairman/CEO, U.S.ENGLISH, Inc.
Before the House Committee on Resources

Regarding H.R. 856
“The United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act”

March 19, 1997
Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of the House Committee on Resources: My name is Mauro E. Mujica. I am the Chairman/CEO of U.S.ENGLISH, Inc., the nation’s oldest and largest citizens’ advocacy group devoted to passing legislation to have English designated the official language of the United States. On behalf of the nearly one million members of U.S.ENGLISH, Inc., I would like to thank you for allowing me to submit testimony on H.R. 856, the United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act.

U.S.ENGLISH is concerned that there be an open discussion on language-related issues, so as to ensure that the United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act clearly defines the terms under which Puerto Rico may become a state, if in fact the people of Puerto Rico choose statehood.

In the last quarter century, the notion of America as a melting pot has been challenged. A myriad of government policies and practices have evolved piecemeal, based on the goal of protecting ethnic and cultural diversity, with little attention paid to the question of what the optimal overall language policy for the United States ought to be. The very implementation of these policies, which have been costly both financially and socially, has brought immediacy to the need for an official language policy for the United States.

There is a growing perception in America of linguistic instability, compounded by the close-to-home Canadian example of bilingual conflict. Obviously, there is sufficient cause for the House Committee on Resources to debate language issues, as they relate to statehood, during its hearing on H.R. 856. Important questions need to be answered about the degree of linguistic and cultural accommodation that will need to be made by both Puerto Rico and the United States as a whole. Can a state in which over three-quarters of the population does not speak English integrate properly with a country in which ninety-seven percent of the population speaks English? Would the United States need to make special linguistic and cultural concessions to the new state? And would a Spanish-speaking state, seeing its culture gradually eroding under the influence of the overwhelming numbers of the English-speaking majority, eventually turn to the same separatist sentiments that have almost torn Quebec from the rest of Canada? Since Puerto Rico is more linguistically homogenous than Quebec — eighty-two percent of the people of Quebec speak French, ninety-eight percent of the people of Puerto Rico speak Spanish — it seems reasonable that Congress would be interested in developing some language requirements for Puerto Rico statehood.

The House of Representatives voted on August 1, 1996, to make English the official language of the federal government by a vote of 259-169. In light of this fact, it is reasonable to expect that American voters, once they become familiar with the specifics of H.R. 856 as currently written, will surely have very strong feelings about the language issue and how it is dealt with. Congress cannot afford to leave the matter of language in a cloud of ambiguity. Surveys consistently show that over eighty percent of Americans support the designation of English as the official language of the United States. It is essential that a comprehensive review and discussion of the language issue, as it relates to Puerto Rican Statehood, be dealt with as expeditiously as possible. Any hesitation to openly and thoroughly address this critical issue will inevitably be interpreted as a lack of sincerity and responsibility on the part of Congress.

In a 1995 referendum, voters came very close to giving a majority to the idea of an independent Quebec, with independence getting 49.4 percent of the vote. That percentage was ten points higher than in the previous referendum fifteen years earlier. It is very possible that in the next referendum, Quebec will vote to secede from Canada, with unpredictable results.

Could such events play themselves out along similar lines in a Puerto Rican state? Puerto Rico and Quebec have important similarities: Both had their own languages and cultures long before becoming part of English-speaking majority nations. Both have populations in which the overwhelming majority speak a language different from that of the majority of the rest of the nation. Both have political movements that focus on independence as the key to maintaining a separate cultural and linguistic identity. Both have economic elites that speak English, while the more economically disadvantaged people do not.

This raises some of very complex questions:

  • Would Spanish be used for the official record in federal courts in Puerto Rico? On appeal, the courts of appeals and the Supreme Court must base their decisions on the official record. Does the Supreme Court need to become bilingual to handle appeals from Puerto Rico?
  • What language should be spoken by employees of other branches of the federal government in Puerto Rico? Must federal employees who might be assigned to work in Puerto Rico speak Spanish?
  • The goal of education programs in the rest of the United States is to produce students fluent in English. If Puerto Rico’s schools do not aim for English fluency, are the students being shortchanged, particularly if they later move to the mainland?
  • If the number of English-speakers increases on the island, will they be perceived as a threat to the Spanish-speaking culture? Will Puerto Rico follow the example of Quebec in protecting its language from encroachment?

Because of the permanent nature of statehood, these questions and many others must be unequivocally answered before Congress grants statehood to Puerto Rico. Not only must Puerto Ricans know what they are getting into, the rest of the United States must know what it is getting.

If Congress wishes to admit Puerto Rico as a state, but avoid the problems that Canada is facing over cultural separatism, Congress must create a long-term process of integration to ensure that, upon admission, Puerto Rico is compatible with the rest of the states.

Congress is empowered to require certain levels of cultural and linguistic change in Puerto Rico before admitting it to the Union. Such steps are not unprecedented; Congress has imposed language restrictions on other states during the admissions process.

The first case in which Congress created linguistic requirements for statehood was Louisiana. The Louisiana Enabling Act, passed by Congress in 1811, required in part:

…[A]fter the admission of said territory of Orleans as a state into the Union, the laws which such state may pass shall be promulgated, and its records of every description shall be preserved, and its judicial and legislative written proceedings conducted, in the language in which the laws and the judicial and legislative written proceedings of the United States are now published and conducted….

Oklahoma and New Mexico were both required to have state constitutions providing that public school education be conducted in English (although allowing the teaching of other languages). Arizona was required to guarantee that its executive and legislative officials read, write, speak and understand English.

If Puerto Rico were to be admitted immediately as a state under the same requirements as Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona, it would require a complete overhaul of the educational system and the judiciary. Many of the current legislators would not qualify for re-election due to lack of English fluency. Such drastic changes would clearly not be acceptable to the statehood advocates who insist that language is not negotiable.

Some statehood supporters advocate an officially bilingual state, with Spanish and English the official languages of the state. There is some precedent for this: English and Hawaiian are the official languages of the state of Hawaii, but Hawaiian is only to be used under limited circumstances. A similar status for Spanish is clearly not what the statehood supporters have in mind.

While coequal status for English and Spanish might avoid some pitfalls, such as the problem of Supreme Court review of court records, official bilingualism would be a costly endeavor in a poor state. Furthermore, how much attention would really be paid to English in a state where ninety-eight percent of the population speaks Spanish?

Another idea to consider is requiring a supermajority of voters to approve the statehood option. Several Congressional leaders have suggested such a requirement for statehood. The two most recent states admitted to the Union approved statehood by overwhelming margins: Alaska with a vote of eighty-three percent in favor, and Hawaii with a vote of ninety-four percent in favor. Considering the permanent nature of statehood, it does not make sense to grant it unless the overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans favor such a step.

Some of the conditions Congress should consider imposing are:

  • Legislative and judicial proceedings and records must be kept in English.
  • English fluency must be required for holding public office.
  • Public schools must teach in English.
  • A majority of the population must speak English fluently.
  • A supermajority vote of seventy-five percent or more to approve statehood.

Congress must also spell out that such conditions cannot be abrogated after statehood without the consent of the United States. The need for such a provision is shown by the experience of Arizona. Arizona’s proposed constitution included recall of judges. Congress, as a condition of statehood, required that Arizona remove judicial recall from its constitution. Arizona did so, but soon after statehood was granted, recall of judges was put back in the state constitution.

The genius of the American system of government rests, in substantial part, in the diversity of origin of its people. We are a people who come from many and differing cultures, races, creeds and traditions. A common language has been the catalyst that has brought us together as Americans. It is what has allowed our great melting pot to work. In the case of Puerto Rican statehood, this fact should not be overlooked.