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'National language' bill born of fear

Symbolic it may be; it's also ugly and unwelcoming

There's nothing wrong with the message that immigrants will do best in the United States if they learn to speak English. It's the language of shopkeepers, of street signs, of papers that arrive in the mail demanding attention.

Learn English, and you'll understand more.

But individually and as a nation, we can't seem to let it go at that. We grouse if Spanish signs are offered as an alternative to English. We pick at government spending to make life easier for people who can't yet speak the dominant tongue. We entangle language with concerns about illegal entry into the country, even though many non-English speakers are here legally.

It's fear, and it's ugly.

It is coming to the forefront of public debate again with the U.S. Senate's approval last week of a bill to make English the "national language." Debate is raging about whether it simply recognizes the cultural dominance of English or actually makes it the only "official" language, leading us down the path to government-approved discrimination. A simple statement that English is the nation's unifying language would be no big deal. But this topic is already loaded, as is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' assertion this week that he considers the legislation purely symbolic.

What symbolism do we have here? One more message that these new people are making the rest of us uncomfortable. If they must come, and if we let them stay, we want them to be like us. We don't want to have to deal with something we don't understand. It might mean our lives will change in ways we wouldn't control. It might create friction.

That America is a melting pot, that we all once came from somewhere else, is sounding like a tired refrain against the voices demanding uniformity.

Yet there's truth to it. And there's little question that if any of us moved here and felt the ugliness toward newcomers this country can demonstrate, we'd be unlikely to react with anything like warmth in return.

OCF to the rescueJackson County's population boom and growing underclass continue to stretch services in the valley. The youngest and most vulnerable are in danger of being left out of the loop, especially as government services are reduced.

But help is on the way. A roster of Jackson County's nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping the disadvantaged &

8212; especially children in need of medical assistance &

8212; is receiving $2 million in private grants to ease the strain of funding services.

The white knight riding to the rescue is the Reed and Carolee Walker Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation. The money, much of it targeting poor rural communities, will help bring health care to students and families and help keep proverty-stricken children healthy. The money will boost existing projects and will be used to add new ones, such as preventive dental care.

Private donations or foundations cannot fill the void left by local, state and federal governments unable to fulfill their missions. But funds set up by people like the Walkers &

8212; or smaller funds set up by people of lesser means &

8212; certainly help people in need and at a time that the need is great. Organizations like OCF deserve our gratitude and our support.