Nashville could become the largest U.S. city to make English the mandatory language for all government business under a measure up being put before voters Thursday, but critics say it might invite lawsuits and even cost the city millions in federal funding.
Though similar measures have passed elsewhere, the idea has ignited an intense debate. Proponents say using one language would unite the city, but business leaders, academics and the city's mayor worry it could give the city a bad reputation, because, as Gov. Phil Bredesen put it, "it's mean spirited."
The referendum's most vocal supporter, city Councilman Eric Crafton collected enough signatures to get the "English First" charter amendment on the ballot because he fears government won't run smoothly if his hometown mirrors New York City, where services are offered in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Italian and French Creole.
Exceptions for health and safety
Crafton has tried to eliminate the city's language translation services since 2006, but the mayor vetoed a similar measure in 2007.
"A community that speaks a common language is unified and efficient," said Crafton, who is fluent in Japanese and married to a native of Japan.
Exactly how much English would be silenced if the measure passes is murky. While it requires that all government communication and publications be printed in English, it allows an exception for public health and safety.
If it passes, there will be uncertainty about what government services can be translated and what can't, said health department spokesman Brian Todd. For example, the public health exemption might allow health workers to use translation to tell an immigrant with tuberculosis or a sexually transmitted disease how to avoid contaminating others, he said.
The department currently provides brochures in several languages about health issues ranging from disease prevention to the side effects of immunizations. It also uses translation services to help enforce dog leash laws and codes that prohibit lots with high grass and weeds.
"Are we going to be able to go out and tell someone in English only that they've got to cut their grass?" Todd said.
Federal aid may be in jeopardy
Detractors have also said the English First policy may not survive a court challenge because Title VI of the Civil Rights Act requires agencies that receive federal dollars to provide free translation services.
Todd said the health department could lose about $25 million in federal funds if it stopped translation services. The city's finance director, Richard Riebeling, said if it passes, he will urge departments to continue providing translation services so Nashville does not "risk millions of dollars in federal grants."
Thirty states, including Tennessee, and at least a dozen cities have declared English their official language, said K.C. McAlpin, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based ProEnglish.
ProEnglish has contributed at least $19,000 to support the referendum. But proponents of the measure missed a campaign finance deadline, so the total raised and spent isn't yet public. Opponents collected about $300,000.
The measure would affect a significant block of Nashville residents. About 10 percent of Nashville's nearly 600,000 people speak a language other than English in their homes, according to census data, and the city's Hispanic population boomed to 5 percent this decade. The city is home to the nation's largest Kurdish community and is a resettlement spot for refugees from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
Critics say translation costs little
Adversaries argue that the city spends little on translation services. The only documented expenditure is for Monterey, Calif.-based Language Line Services, which provides phone interpretations in 176 languages. Between April 2004 and December 2008, Nashville spent $522,287 on the service — less than 1 percent of the city's $1.5 billion annual budget. By comparison, the referendum is costing $300,000, elections officials said.
Immigrants and advocates say it takes a long time to learn English. If the measure passes, there won't be much time to catch up: The council would have 10 days to certify the vote, and the measure would take effect after that.
Remziya Suleyman, 24, a Kurdish refugee from Zaxo, Iraq, moved to Nashville in 1992 with her family. It took her three years to learn English in Nashville public schools.
Her 43-year-old mother, however, still struggles.
"She doesn't know how to read and write English even after being here for 17 years because, like many other refugees, she had to work three jobs at one point for the family to survive," Suleyman said.