WASHINGTON – Rep. Ernest Istook (search) fears that weary English-speaking travelers may one day come to a road sign reading "Umweg! Desvio! Deviazione!" and end up taking a "Detour" down the wrong road before finding English in the mix of German, Spanish and Italian.
It may sound far-fetched, but several House Republicans say an executive order signed by President Clinton (search) in 2000 could pave the way for such an ill-conceived scenario. They laud efforts by Istook to start chipping away at what they say are federal mandates that could eventually tear the country apart.
"It's just a small way towards addressing the problem," said Mica Swafford, spokeswoman for Istook, who is the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury and Independent Agencies (search).
Istook included in the fiscal year 2004 Transportation and Treasury spending bill a measure that would exempt the Department of Transportation from requiring states and localities using federal highway funds to provide multilingual signage.
The measure passed in the final House transportation spending package, which is now awaiting conference committee deliberations. No similar provision was included in the Senate package.
Dave Helfert, spokesman for Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said Istook's measure faces little opposition, most likely because members knew the provision would have little effect. Not only are no state or local governments using multilingual road signs, but the Istook measure only applies to the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2004.
"You have a solution running around looking for a problem," Helfert said, noting that Istook has been championing English-only causes for years, so the provision is no surprise. "I think it's using the appropriations process to advance a social conservative agenda."
Not necessarily, said Istook's office, which pointed out that a few multilingual signs have already popped up across the country, and they expect that number to climb.
According to the DOT, no requirement exists to fund multilingual signs with highway money, but the option is available as a result of Clinton Executive Order 13166 -- "Improving Access to Services for Persons With Limited English Proficiency (LEP)."
Using the 1964 Civil Rights Act (search) as a guidepost, the executive order directs all federal agencies to map out compliance strategies for providing access to all government services for non-English-speaking persons.
"Each federal agency shall examine the services it provides and develop and implement a system by which LEP persons can meaningfully access those services consistent with, and without unduly burdening, the fundamental mission of the agency," Clinton said in the Aug. 11, 2000, order.
According to Swafford, that could include requiring full-time interpreters in hospitals, departments of motor vehicles, courtrooms, unemployment offices and any other government bureaucracy that gets federal dollars. Beyond that, signs and every piece of paperwork filed on behalf of a patient or client would have to be written in multiple languages to fulfill new requirements.
Ten federal agencies are affected by the order, and some are still hammering out their final plans, which ultimately will be overseen by the Department of Justice. While the order does not require anything new, it forces agencies to improve existing language services.
The Office of Budget Management, which assessed the order’s implementation for Congress in March 2002, said LEP services now cost federal, state and local governments about $46.7 billion annually.
That does not include services not yet implemented as a result of the order. Those expenses would be hard to estimate, according to OMB. But based on existing state figures, the report said new and existing DMV, food stamp and immigration language services alone could reach $538 million annually.
Marisa Demeo, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, told Foxnews.com that snowballing costs has been a recurring argument, but she is convinced that each agency will tailor costs to the actual number of LEP persons it serves, the number of different languages it needs to address and the urgency of need.
For example, hospitals in places with high Latino populations will no doubt focus more resources on providing Spanish translators in emergency rooms, rather than worrying about putting up restroom signs in German and Swahili.
“I think that somehow the argument that [funding] recipients are going to have to provide information in not only dozens but hundreds of different languages does not match what the Department of Justice has actually done,” she said. “Each agency has its own guidance.”
But Swafford warned that Clinton's order is so open-ended it could create chaos for agencies as well as balloon costs and create a hotbed of liability.
"[Rep. Istook] is concerned that this order is poorly written and is enormously expansive in scope," she said. "It includes not only federal agencies, but anyone who contracts with federal agencies -- it seems to be a huge gaping hole."
One of Istook's major concerns is that the order discourages non-English speakers from learning the language, a belief that is shared by Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who has never been called a social conservative. King has authored a bill that would get rid of Executive Order 13166 altogether.
"I am basically very pro-immigrant, but I strongly believe that bilingual programs keep immigrants in linguistic ghettos, it gives them false reassurances and prevents them from making a break into society," said King, whose bill has been stalled in committee since January.
"It's hard," he said. "You have to make incremental progress. It's mainly a question of cutting back."
Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., who has a large contingent of Spanish-speaking immigrants in his district, said it is damaging to immigrants in the long run if they are not encouraged to learn English.
"What we found in Arizona is the desire for immigrants to learn English is overwhelming," he said. "The main thing we want to see is Americans who want to join in with the rest of the society and not have a wall of separation between those who speak English and those who don't."
Demeo said that is a noble goal, but basic services must be accessible to immigrants in the meantime. “What do you do when an immigrant is learning English, but the ability to speak it is not there, do you deny them the ability to call 911?”