WASHINGTON — Latinos and other supporters of bilingual education are launching an offensive against the growing move to establish an English-only policy nationwide, which they call an example of increasing hostility against Latinos.
Pressing their case for more support for those hampered by their inability to speak and read English, several groups and members of Congress plan a news conference today to announce details of a federal education bill to be introduced this week.
The legislation, drafted by Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park), will call for $10 million to be redirected from Education Secretary William J. Bennett's discretionary fund to help fight illiteracy among adults and school dropouts.
The bill, called the english proficiency act, does not specify nationalities, but supporters said Latinos are the largest group in need of special help and the one most ignored by literacy programs.
Supporters said introduction of the bill is an effort to seize the high ground from those who want the nation to declare English its official language.
"We're saying if you really want to teach English, this is the way to do it," said Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente), one of the bill's two dozen co-sponsors.
Lori S. Orum, education director for the National Council of La Raza, said: "Instead of screaming at people to learn English, let's teach them."
Joseph Trevino, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, called the legislation a "response to the claim that Hispanics are looking for a Hispanic Quebec in the Southwest," a reference to the French-language stronghold in Canada.
After watching pro-English sentiment lead six states to declare English their official language, the bill's supporters believe that they have found a way to put the English-only supporters on the defensive.
But Gerda Bikales, executive director of U.S. English, a leading English-only group founded by former California U.S. Sen. S. I. Hayakawa, said the bill demonstrates that her side is winning its battle. "They're changing their tune," she said. "We're going to put out a press release declaring victory."
Raul Yzaguirre, president of La Raza, called U.S. English a "divisive movement that has appealed to the nativist and xenophobic elements in our society, and Hispanics have increasingly become the victims of this hatred and fear."
In addition to presenting a formal response to the English-only movement, the legislation also serves as a reaction to what some bilingual education supporters say is Bennett's effort to weaken bilingual programs.
Bennett's critics assert that he is an outspoken advocate of literacy programs but fails to devote adequate funds for programs serving people whose native language is not English.
"We don't feel unsympathetic toward anyone who wants to learn English," Bennett spokesman Loye Miller said, but he said the Education Department would not favor taking the money from Bennett's discretionary fund because the department already spends about $100 million a year on adult education.
James J. Lyons, legislative counsel for the National Assn. for Bilingual Education, countered: "Every community that we look at has waiting lists for people who want to learn English."
In April, the Census Bureau released a 1982 study saying that the illiteracy rate for adult Americans whose native language is English was 9%, but the figure was 48% for those who grew up speaking another language.