Official English wouldn't alter much
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 27, 2006
Mary Jo Pitzl
Those on both sides of Proposition 103 agree: Few things would change if Arizona
voters made 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
And the Legislature would conduct its business the way it always has, in
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
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
"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 issued 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
Even in Guadalupe, which has a strong Mexican and Yaqui Indian population,
the measure would have little effect. The town conducts its business in
English, and its official documents are in English, Councilwoman Margarita
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.
Previous law overturned
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, has formed a campaign to promote it and is recruiting "some great
patriots and good people" to run it.
Late last week, the campaign reported its first contribution: $25,000 from
Official English, a national group that promotes English as the nation's
"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
would 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," said Gallardo, a
Phoenix Democrat. "He's using this as a way to advance his own position."
Pearce has drawn widespread scrutiny in the past few weeks for advocating a
return to the 1950s-era "Operation Wetback" program. The program was
controversial because it rounded up legal citizens in its attempt to deport
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 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.
Language of record
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
"The effect should be making it the language of record," said Park, a
Prescott resident who is chairman of ProEnglish, a group that supports
official-English designations and the use of English as the common language
in the U.S.
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 multilingual 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 passed.
Phoenix, for example, would need direction from its attorneys before knowing
how narrowly, or how widely, Proposition 103 would affect operations.
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org or at (602) 444-8963.