More states, cities pass `official English' policy

Advocates seeing less promise in federal action

November 23, 2006|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,SUN REPORTER

With Democrats capturing both houses of Congress, the odds appear to be dimming for passage of a Republican-sponsored measure to make English the official national language -- but more states and, increasingly, towns and cities are passing such measures.

"These things have been kicking around in Congress since the 1980s," said Dennis Baron, a University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign linguistics professor. "But now it's the kind of the thing we're starting to see more at the municipal level, not just at the state legislature."

At least 18 towns and cities officially considered or enacted them this year, according to U.S. English Inc., an organization that lobbies to make English the country's official language. This month, the tiny Carroll County city of Taneytown became the first in Maryland to pass a resolution making English its official language, the same week that similar measures passed in Farmers Branch, Texas, and Pahrump, Nev.

And 28 states have enacted laws making English the official state language, many instituted under a movement launched in the early 1980s by former Sen. S.I. Hayakawa, a former English professor and Republican of Japanese ancestry from California, who founded U.S. English Inc.

In the recent election, Arizona passed such an amendment to reinstate one the state Supreme Court struck down on constitutional grounds in 1998.

"We would certainly hope the [federal] government takes the lead on assimilation efforts, but given their slowness, and in some cases, refusal to do so, we have to continue to work on the state and local level," said Rob Toonkel, the spokesman for U.S. English.

English-only movements and efforts to stamp out bilingual education have long flourished in states such as California, Texas and Florida, with their large concentrations of native Spanish speakers. But the cases of Taneytown and Pahrump are more surprising, Baron said: Most residents in both locations only speak English.

The measures divided both the Taneytown City Council and the Pahrump Town Board, both passing in 3-2 votes.

"Some of today's illegal immigrants tomorrow are going to become U.S. citizens," said Taneytown Councilman Paul E. Chamberlain Jr., who sponsored the measure. "It behooves us to try to put things in motion so that they have the opportunity to learn English."

Pahrump's ordinance to make English its official language also restricts the display of foreign flags and denies town benefits to undocumented immigrants. Laurayne Murray, a Town Board member opposed to the law, said it should be rescinded when four new board members take office in January. The American Civil Liberties Union also threatened to file a lawsuit.

"Our patriotism and honor of the flag has been outlined by the federal government as voluntary," Murray said. "I don't think it will be enforced. And I don't think it would be upheld as constitutional in a court of law."

Increasingly, efforts to make English the official language are intertwined with laws designed to drive out illegal immigrants, fueled in part by post-Sept. 11 anxieties, Baron said.

A law to make English the official language passed in Hazleton, Pa., in July, but a judge has stayed on constitutional grounds the implementation of a related ordinance that would fine landlords who rent to undocumented immigrants and businesses that employ them. Yet the city's numerous Hispanic immigrants have started to leave in droves, according to Joseph Yannuzzi Sr., the City Council president.

In Maryland, Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, has campaigned against illegal immigration and will again introduce a bill to make English the state's official language. He also supports requiring driver's license applicants to demonstrate English proficiency.

"The movement in the country to make English the official language and to provide stricter laws related to illegal aliens suffered a setback at the national level and in Maryland [this election]," McDonough said. "These things come in ebbs and flows."

If the law fails to pass in Maryland, McDonough hopes Baltimore County and other counties will adopt English as their official languages instead.

Efforts to promote English and still ensure that immigrants maintain their native languages shouldn't be diametrically opposed, said Nancy E. Roman, vice president and director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Washington program. While the rest of the world masters English, more Americans must study foreign languages, such as Mandarin Chinese and Arabic, to enhance business and national security, she said.

"English is the official language of the U.S. no matter what the law states," Roman said. "It's possible to be an English-speaking country and to simultaneously not be afraid of foreign languages. Immigrants should be learning English, but they should be proud of the languages they came in with and hang onto them."

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