Texas is a border state recognized for its diversity. In the melting pot that is America, differences are — and should be — celebrated. But as a nation that welcomes immigrants from all over the world, without a common thread to unite us in our diversity, we become divided. Without an official language policy, Texas is unfortunately a prime example of these divisions.
Census data show 171 languages are spoken in Texas. Multilingualism should, of course, be encouraged. I myself am a native Spanish speaker and I am now fluent in four languages and continue to study even more. But regardless of how many languages one can speak, in the United States, English should be considered crucial.
Due to the lack of an official language policy, however, 25 of the state’s 254 counties have limited English proficiency rates of 20 percent or higher. In fact, more than 3.3 million Texas residents, or close to 15 percent of the state’s population, are considered limited English proficient, meaning they would struggle to carry on more than a basic conversation in English.
Without a firm grasp of English, these limited English-proficient individuals are likely to be trapped in low-paying jobs, less likely to have health insurance and likely to face daily life encountering language barriers. How do I know?
I myself am an immigrant to the United States. One of the things that makes me feel most American is being able to navigate daily life without needing special linguistic accommodations. I know, too, that when no translation service is provided, immigrants see an incentive to learn English for their benefit.
It’s time for the Texas Legislature to take note — and take action. By declaring English the official language of the Lone Star State, state government agencies would no longer be required to provide documents and services in languages other than English, saving valuable taxpayer money, which could then instead be used to create more opportunities for immigrants to learn English.
But more importantly, the state government would send a message that in Texas — as in the United States — English is essential, not optional, for success.
How does English proficiency lead to success? A September 2014 study from the Brookings Institution found that limited English-speaking residents earn 25 percent to 40 percent less than their English-speaking counterparts. Without an official language policy, such divisions will continue to exist.
Of course, declaring English the official language would still permit use of foreign languages in public health and safety emergencies, judicial situations and other common sense exceptions. But the policy sends an overarching message: To achieve your highest potential here in Texas, English proficiency is key. Such a policy allows the government to have a hand in ensuring that immigrants are placed on a level playing field with native English speakers, allowing them to take control of their destiny, improving their chances for success and putting them on the path to achieving the American Dream.
Mauro E. Mujica is the chairman of U.S. English Inc., the nation’s oldest and largest non-partisan citizens action group dedicated to preserving the unifying role of the English language in the United States.