Letís speak English in Ohio, legislator says
April 11, 2006

Jim Siegel

Bill would make it the stateís official language

As congressional action sparks protests by hundreds of thousands across the nation over the issue of immigration, a state lawmaker has introduced a bill to make English the official language in Ohio. Federal lawmakers are trying to decide what to do with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States and how to stop more of them from pouring across the Mexican border.

In Ohio, state Rep. Courtney Combs said he wants to encourage those who come to Ohio to speak English. To do that, he has introduced the Ohio English Unity Act, which requires all state and local governments to produce records only in English.

"It makes us, in my opinion, all Americans if we speak the same language," the Hamilton Republican said.

"It puts the state government on notice that we want people to learn English" at places such as churches where classes are offered. "Iíve been told thesepeople work too much and they canít go. Well, I donít buy that."

The immigration issue is much hotter now than when Combs began working on the bill in early 2005. The U.S. House and Senate recently have debated proposals that include tightening border security, increasing the penalty for coming to the U.S. illegally and allowing many illegal immigrants the chance at citizenship.

Combs said he was encouraged when some members of Congress stressed the need for all U.S. residents to learn to speak English.

"Hopefully, the country is in the right mood to do things right," he said, when asked how the federal debate would affect his bill, versions of which have passed in 27 other states.

Ten House lawmakers ó nine of them Republicans ó have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill, including one from central Ohio: Rep. Linda Reidelbach, R-Columbus.

The bill allows governments to produce non-English documents to comply with federal law or to protect public health and safety.

But while Combs said the bill would encourage more immigrants to learn English, Ezra Escudero said its real impact would be equal to that of a bumper sticker.

The executive director of the Ohio Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs said that, while he agrees with the premise that immigrants should learn English, the bill does nothing to increase access to English-language education.

"This is a punitive bill that says youíre not welcome if you donít learn English," Escudero said. "That is not the way to do it."

In mid-March, the commission voted to oppose the bill, calling it harmful to Ohio. The panel cited the lack of education funding, unnecessary prohibitions and its potential to drive a wedge between diverse Ohio communities.

A number of state agencies publish materials in other languages, such as crimevictim information by the attorney generalís office. The Columbus Fire Division publishes public-information requests and forms about smoke-alarm systems in Spanish.

Combs said heís been talking with the Hispanic/Latino Commission about the bill for more than a year, but eventually he gave up trying to reach a compromise. "Finally, I got to the point that I told them, ĎIf you canít come to a decision, Iím going to introduce the bill,í " he said. "Weíre just spinning our wheels with these people."

Copyright © 2006, The Columbus Dispatch