Official English would it make any difference?
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 24, 2006

Mary Jo Pitzl

Those on both sides of Proposition 103 agree: Few things would change if Arizona voters make English the state's official language.

Ballots would still be printed in Spanish because federal law requires it.
Conversations at government offices, from the Motor Vehicle Division to the agency that issues birth certificates, could continue in languages other than English.

And the Legislature would conduct its business the way it always has - in English. But to the lawmakers who put the measure on the Nov. 7 ballot, having English as the state's official language is an important symbol of common values.

Opponents say it does more to divide than unite, calling it yet another wedge issue in the contentious public debate over illegal immigration.

The measure would require English to be the language used for all official government actions.

"If it's not an official act, or a binding act, it can be in something other than English," said Ken Berringer, an attorney with the Joint Legislative Council, which drafts legislative bills.

So although someone could converse with a motor-vehicle clerk in Spanish, the driver's license that the office issues would be printed in English . .
. as it always has been.

Lawmakers could talk to constituents in a language other than English - but the bills they sponsor would be written in English . . . as they always have been.

Even in the Town of Guadalupe, which has a strong Mexican and Yaqui Indian population, the measure might have little effect. The town conducts its business in English, and its official documents are in English, said councilwoman Margarita Garcia.

However, she said, the town often offers translation services, in recognition of the different languages of its residents.

The issue has been a sleeper this election year, with no one campaigning either for or against it.

It's a far cry from 1988, when an "English only" amendment to the state
Constitution was narrowly approved after a rancorous campaign. That law,
which never was fully enacted, ultimately was overturned by the courts after
a decade of litigation.

This year, Proposition 103 was written to accommodate the objections cited
by the Arizona Supreme Court when it struck down the earlier law.
Proposition 103's aim is much narrower: Only official government acts, not
the interoffice communications or casual conversations that some feared were
barred by the 1988 law.

Proposition 103 may hit the limelight yet. State Rep. Russell Pearce, who
championed the legislative resolution that sent official English to the
ballot, said he is organizing a campaign and recruiting "some great patriots
and good people" to run it.

"This is just common sense," the Mesa Republican said. "This isn't anti
anything. It's pro-America. It's good sense, it's common sense, it's the
right thing to do.

Rep. Steve Gallardo, who opposes the measure even though he concedes it will
make little difference, said Pearce's backing of Proposition 103 could hurt
its chances.

"He's using this as a way to attack illegal immigration," Gallardo, a
Phoenix Democrat, said. "He's using this as a way to advance his own

Pearce has drawn widespread scrutiny in the last few weeks for advocating a
return to the 1950s-era "Operation Wetback" program. The program was highly
controversial because it rounded up legal citizens in its attempt to deport
illegal immigrants.

The furor was further compounded when Pearce sent out an e-mail that
included an attached magazine article full of anti-Semitic statements. He
quickly denounced the article, saying he had read only first few paragraphs
and was unaware of its offensive content.

Pearce is the Legislature's leading critic of illegal immigration and is the
sponsor of four ballot measures that deal with immigration-related topics.

Of the four, official English is the least offensive, Gallardo said.

But it's hypocritical for lawmakers to ask voters to enact official English
as a way to promote a common language, he said, while also asking voters to
bar anyone who is not a legal U.S. resident from taking adult-education
classes (which include English instruction) sponsored by the state.
Proposition 300, also on the Nov. 7 ballot, would do just that, along with
other education and child-support programs.

"How is this going to slow down one person from coming across the border?"
Gallardo asked.

The true roadblock would be sanctions on employers who hire the workers
coming across the border illegally, he said.

Bob Park, who spearheaded the 1988 English-only measure, said he doesn't see
the official English designation as having anything to do with suppressing
border crossings. Or affecting marketing. Or making a whit of difference in
non-government offices.

"The effect should be making it the language of record," said Park, a
Prescott resident who is chairman of ProEnglish, a group which supports
official-English designations and the use of English as the common language
in the United States.

The intent, Park said, is a proactive move to prevent Arizona, as well as
other states, from becoming a bilingual government.

Park, who is not involved in this year's ballot campaign, attributed the
subdued effort this year to two factors: Proposition 103 was written to
address the objections raised by the state Supreme Court, and people are
more riled up about illegal immigration.

"I think the demonstrations this spring awakened people," he said.

Something has to be done, and even though official English admittedly won't
stem illegal immigration, it's a symbolic move, Park said.

The measure includes various exemptions to the English requirement, ranging
from anything mandated by federal law (such as multi-lingual ballots) to
Native American languages.

State government, as well as local governments, are still trying to figure
out what operations, if any, they'd have to change if the measure passes.

The city of Phoenix, for example, would need direction from its attorneys
before knowing how narrowly, or how widely, Proposition 103 might affect

"We have not done any kind of in-depth analysis on any of this," said Karen
Peters, the city's intergovernmental-affairs director.

Courts officials were unsure what changes they would need to make and did
not want to comment out of concern that the matter might end up in court,
said J.W. Brown, a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Superior Courts.

Gallardo suggested official English would require all marriage ceremonies at
Justice of the Peace offices to be conducted in English, although courts
officials weren't certain.

"Imagine someone having to take their most-sacred vows in a language they
can't speak," Gallardo said.

Reach the reporter at or at (602) 444-8963.