English language legislation gathers
steam across the USA
by William M. Welch, USA TODAY
English as an official language has gained momentum as proponents keep going to the ballot box with measures that discourage bilingual ballots, notices and documents.
Thirty states now have laws specifying that official government communications be in English, says U.S. English, a group that promotes the laws. This year such bills are under consideration in 19 legislatures.
"It's multiplying tremendously," says Mauro Mujica, a Chilean immigrant and chairman and CEO of U.S. English. "We've made huge progress."
Critics do not see progress. Some say the increase in the measures nationwide sends a hostile message to newcomers.
"It just poisons the atmosphere in local communities," says John Trasvina, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Typically the proposed laws require that documents, ballots and other communications be published in English. Exempt are communications to protect public health and safety or efforts to promote tourism.
•In May, the Ohio House of Representatives approved a bill making English the state's official language. It is now before the state Senate.
•In April, the Oklahoma House passed a bill requiring the majority of state business to be conducted in English. It is before the Senate.
•Missouri will decide this fall on an amendment to the constitution requiring English for "all official proceedings."
Advocates say they are not suggesting that English be the only language spoken but that it be the only language used in dealing with government.
Mujica, who speaks Spanish in his home, says requiring English for official business encourages immigrants to learn English. That will help them to assimilate into U.S. society and prosper in its economy, he says.
"We're making it too easy for people to function in other languages," he complains.
But the effectiveness of the movement is in question since federal sometimes trumps a state's official English law. For instance, the Voting Rights Act requires certain localities to publish bilingual ballots.
"They've raised the level of ire against languages other than English (but)… haven't really changed the government's or businesses' way of doing business," Trasvina said.
Rob Toonkel, spokesman for U.S. English, says that is not true. He says the laws do not cover everything but ensure that things like driver's licenses, zoning forms and the day-to-day activities are overwhelmingly in English.
"We want to be sure (immigrants) are becoming part of America and American society," he says. "That's what official English is about."
There is one issue the two sides appear to agree on — more can be done to help non-English speakers learn English.
Sam Jammal, legislative attorney in MALDEF's Washington, D.C. office, says making English classes more available for adult immigrants is a better solution than official English.
"We fully agree with that," Mujica says.