English-only, flag ordinance divides growing Nevada town
Nov. 26, 2006
PAHRUMP, Nev. - Retiree Sam Jones wakes up each day and puts his graying hair in
a ponytail, a .45-caliber pistol on his right hip and the U.S.
Constitution in his back pocket.
He is a man who knows how to make a statement.
So for Jones, and others like him in this desert outpost, it was a no-brainer
when town leaders wanted to send a message to its growing immigrant community.
"This is America, and in America we speak English,"
Jones, 55, said of his interpretation of Pahrump's new English Language and
Patriot Reaffirmation ordinance. "Old Glory has got to be flown on top."
By approving the law this month, a town best known for its proximity to legal
brothels thrust itself into the nation's immigration debate.
The growing bedroom community 60 miles down a two-lane road from Las Vegas made
English its official language and barred residents from flying a foreign flag by
The new ordinance does little, if anything, to change business in Pahrump.
But it has done much to reveal frustrations simmering beneath the surface of a
town in transition.
"This isn't just about Hispanics, it's about anyone who is different, anyone who
comes from a different community," said 23-year-old Henry Amaya, a Hispanic who
recently moved to Pahrump from California. "People should be able to speak
whatever language they want to."
Supporters of Pahrump's new law say its intent is to encourage assimilation,
although they acknowledge it's more symbolism than substance. The ordinance
provides exceptions for any communication the federal government requires to be
translated, meaning few, if any, changes.
The county sheriff said he won't enforce the law.
"You've heard of a paper tiger, this is paper kitten. You can't enforce it,"
Nye County Sheriff Tony DeMeo said. "The flag has been considered a statement of
freedom of expression. If someone wants to fly one there's not too much you can
do to tell them to take it down."
About 11 percent of Pahrump's 33,241 residents are Hispanic, according to state
The number has been growing steadily, like the town, as retirees and young
families cross the desert looking for a better life at a cheaper price. They
come from Las Vegas and California. They find inexpensive homes and a quieter
Driven by a Pahrump housing boom, Nye County was the sixth-fastest-growing
county in the nation last year.
There are growing pains, DeMeo said.
Nye County had long clung to its dusty Western roots. Prostitution is still
legal in what for years had been a farming and ranching outpost and a refuge for
loners who disdained the city. It's not uncommon for some here to carry guns
Three members of the Town Board that voted for the measure were not elected, but
appointed by the governor.
Michael Miraglia, the ordinance's chief backer, was one of those appointed.
The 67-year-old retired Illinois state worker said the idea for the measure had
been percolating for years. TV images of Hispanic protesters carrying Mexican
flags at May Day rallies made him boil.
He said he believes Hispanic immigrants are different from people coming from
other countries, that they seem to resist assimilating.
Miraglia said he had no idea the issue would spark controversy, but fellow board
member Richard Billman, an opponent, said he had no illusions.
"My first reaction? Well, it's probably not repeatable, certainly not
printable," Billman said. "I knew the backup material . . . would be something
that would polarize the issue."
The measure was approved, 3-2, at a contentious Nov. 14 meeting attended by only
a few Hispanic residents.
"It's an approval for people to say vile and degrading things to Hispanics.
It's one of those things that cannot be tolerated," said Fernando Romero, a
political activist who attended the meeting.
The American Civil Liberties Union called the section of the law on flag
etiquette a violation of the First Amendment and said it may sue.
Newly elected members of the town board who take office next month said they
plan to rewrite it.