Cities and states are giving `English-only' laws a punitive turn

October 15, 2006|By Howard Witt | Howard Witt,Chicago Tribune

HOUSTON -- When Tim O'Hare drives through the aging north Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch where he serves as a city councilman, he sees signs of trouble everywhere. Property values are stagnating, he says. Crime is rising while schools are declining.

And too many people are speaking Spanish.

"Our retail establishments are in deplorable shape - half of the businesses aren't filled, and the rest are filled with Spanish-speaking businesses," O'Hare said. "Our citizens are still majority non-Spanish speaking by far. Spanish probably will overtake the city if we don't do something about this."

The problems, O'Hare believes, are caused by illegal immigrants. The solution he's proposing, a city ordinance, would make English the official language of Farmers Branch and crack down hard on any landlord who rents to an illegal immigrant or any employer who hires one.

It's a position that places O'Hare in the vanguard of an English-only movement that is gaining adherents across the nation and causing alarm among Hispanic civil rights groups.

Frustrated by what they perceive as the federal government's failure to secure U.S. borders, localities are taking matters into their hands:

Twenty-seven states have passed laws declaring English to be their official language, four others are considering them, and more than a dozen towns and cities this year have either approved or are debating similar measures that seek to curtail bilingualism in governmental documents and programs.

Even more are coupling the English-only proposals with measures to block illegal immigrants from access to housing, jobs and education. More than 30 municipalities like Farmers Branch have passed or are considering such laws, according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors curbs on immigration.

The measures typically require landlords and employers to verify the legal status of every applicant for an apartment or a job, or face stiff fines.

"Landlords and employers are the ones that are profiting as a result of illegal immigration," said Ira Mehlman, a federation spokesman. "Then those landlords and employers are committing everybody else in those communities to pay for education and health care, and they are subjecting neighbors to houses that are filled with 20 and 30 people sometimes."

Many Hispanic leaders perceive racism behind the new laws and foresee the backlash against illegal immigrants spreading to Hispanic Americans, the nation's largest minority group.

"There is a very anti-immigrant sentiment attached to the English-only movement," said John Trasviqa, interim president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "In a lot of the communities where this has come up, there is a tremendous amount of ill will that is raised by these ordinances."

Others fear a surge of racial profiling by landlords and employers, who may simply shy away from dealing with any Spanish-speaking applicant rather than risk penalties.

"Am I going to have to prove my citizenship to everyone just because I am Hispanic?" said Hector Flores, a Dallas resident and former president of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

"What kind of America is this?"

Yet leaders of U.S. English Inc., a group founded in 1983 to lobby for "official English" laws, say they are not motivated by racism, and they lament that their ideas are now being combined with punitive measures targeting illegal immigrants.

"It is troubling because it's usually the illegal immigration part that pulls down the whole argument," said Rob Toonkel, spokesman for the group.

Rather, Toonkel said, English-only laws are intended to encourage immigrants from all countries to quickly learn English and not rely on bilingual crutches - and the laws typically contain provisions for governments to continue to provide essential emergency and legal services in multiple languages.

But Hispanic leaders counter that such laws are unnecessary because most immigrants understand that they must master English if they hope to prosper in America.

Moreover, they say, research shows that by the third generation, most children of immigrant families speak only English.

In Farmers Branch, where 37 percent of the town's 26,487 residents are Hispanic, other leaders don't see a need for O'Hare's plan.

Mayor Bob Phelps said that crime is down, local schools are improving and property values have appreciated modestly.

But negative publicity over the proposed crackdown on illegal immigrants, he said, has led at least one major corporation that was planning to locate its headquarters in Farmers Branch to change its mind.

Howard Witt writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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