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Pro-English measures being revived across U.S.

The movement to make English the official language of U.S. government seems to come and go in cycles, and now it's back in Congress and numerous state legislatures.
Image: James Inhofe
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., introduced two bills in May that would declare English the official U.S. language. ‘A nation of immigrants needs one national language,’ he said.Susan Walsh / AP
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In perfect, if Southern-inflected, Japanese, Eric Crafton urged his colleagues on the Nashville, Tenn., City Council to let voters decide whether English should be the city’s official language.

Crafton, who learned Japanese during his service in the Navy, offered this translation: “This situation must change.”

The council’s decision to put the measure on the city ballot set off a bitter and expensive campaign, with Crafton and supporters from the nation’s “official English” movement pitted against the mayor, the governor of Tennessee and the leaders of numerous religious and community groups.

Nashville voters rejected the measure in January, but it won the support of 43 percent of them. Had they prevailed, Nashville would have become the largest city in the country to require that its official government business be conducted solely in English.

“English is under attack,” Crafton said in campaigning for the measure. “The fact that making English our government’s official language is even controversial should give us all pause.”

But City Council member Jerry Maynard called the proposal “mean-spirited,” adding, “It smells of racism.”

Numerous campaigns across country
The movement to make English the official language of U.S. government seems to run in cycles, and for now it’s back. Since the beginning of the year, four bills to that effect have been introduced in Congress, with versions of the idea included as part of at least three other bills. Meanwhile, similar measures have been introduced in at least 10 of the 22 states that don’t already have such provisions.

“A nation of immigrants needs one national language,” Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said last month in introducing legislation that would make English the “national language” and declare that “there is no entitlement to receive federal documents and services in languages other than English.”

At the same time, however, programs across the country that help immigrants learn English are facing budget cuts because of the recession, which could pose a conundrum if some of the measures succeed.

“We hear so often: ‘They need to learn English. They need to learn English.’ Well, somebody has to teach them, you know,” said Mauricio Calvo, director of Latino Memphis, which serves an estimated 100,000 Hispanic residents in Memphis, Tenn., where the school board voted late last year to cut staff for its English as a second language program to reduce costs.

Like Crafton, Inhofe has been called a bigot for his advocacy of pro-English legislation, most notably by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., now the majority leader. In a floor speech three years ago, Reid branded Inhofe’s effort to attach a nearly identical measure as an amendment to an immigration bill as “racist.”

It’s a charge often leveled by opponents, many of whom say the movement is motivated by anti-immigrant sentiment.

When the Georgia Legislature considered a measure that would offer driver’s license tests only in English in April, Mariela Orellana, who runs a company that helps Hispanics navigate social services programs in Savannah, called the idea not just “simple racism” but also self-defeating.

“The ones that are going to be affected are international businesses, international partnerships, the same kind of businesses that Governor (Sonny) Perdue and everybody in Atlanta has been trying to woo and to convince to come to Georgia and establish businesses,” Orellana said.

Both houses of the Legislature passed similar versions of the measure, but the initiative died when the Senate, in a 22-22 vote, failed to accept the House-passed final version. The measure is considered likely to resurface in the 2010 session.

The Nashville Chamber of Commerce opposed Crafton’s measure on similar grounds, saying it would send the message that the city “is not inclusive,” Vice President Debby Dale Mason said.

Ties to anti-immigration groups?
Proponents say their critics have it backward. They say they want to help legal immigrants fit in and make their full contribution to U.S. society.

For example, ProEnglish, one of the major groups leading the charge to enshrine English as the nation’s official language, argues that requiring all immigrants to learn English would make it easier for them to “assimilate, earn higher wages and pursue the American dream like generations of immigrants before them.”

ProEnglish heavily funded Crafton’s initiative in Nashville, according to an analysis of donor records by The Tennessean newspaper. The group also opposes bilingual education, multilingual election ballots and statehood for Puerto Rico because English is not its official language. It argues that immigrants should be required to demonstrate literacy in English and that employers should have the right to require their workers to speak English on the job.

In a report this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a liberal activist group, portrayed the founder of ProEnglish, retired eye surgeon John Tanton, as the mastermind of a national anti-immigrant network with ties to racist organizations. Tanton vigorously denied the allegation, writing in a long response to the SPLC that he is “not opposed to all immigration, but rather ‘massive’ immigration.”

Tanton has been working to reduce U.S. immigration levels for more than 20 years. Among other organizations, he also founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which works to “stop the massive influx of foreign workers,” and the Center for Immigration Studies, whose research is frequently cited by conservative advocates for limits on immigration.

ProEnglish, meanwhile, shares the same Arlington, Va., address as NumbersUSA, which describes itself as an “immigration-reduction organization” and opposes automatic citizenship for children born in the United States.

In 2000, another prominent English-language advocacy group that Tanton founded, U.S. English Inc., issued a statement saying it had “repudiated” him and labeling some of his commentary “offensive.”

While it shares many of the same positions as ProEnglish, U.S. English does not oppose bilingual education programs — although it says such assistance should be short-term — and it awards an annual scholarship for students specializing in teaching English as a second language. It argues that money saved from eliminating multilingual government services “could be better served teaching new immigrants English.”

‘English only’ vs. ‘official English’
It is perhaps fitting that one of the biggest arguments between the sides boils down to a disagreement over words.

To drive home their contention that backers of English-language measures are right-wing nationalists, many opponents use the term “English-only” to describe the movement, warning that people not fluent in the language could be locked out of the political process or endangered in life-threatening emergencies.

U.S. English, ProEnglish and other advocates bristle at the term. Their preferred moniker is “official English” — they say they have nothing against other languages and that they simply want to promote English.

While Crafton, the sponsor of the Nashville initiative, said he eventually wants the city to charge a fee of $1 a minute to people who call 911 and need an interpreter, his measure did include an exemption for emergency services, a common provision of nearly all federal and state laws and proposals.

One of them was in Albertville, a town of 18,000 in northeastern Alabama, where the City Council excluded emergency services from its unanimous vote last week declaring English the official city language. It’s not a matter of “telling people which language they want to speak,” said council member Chuck Ellis.

Rather, said Mayor Lindsey Lyons, who introduced the measure, “I think and totally believe it’s going to unify all the citizens of this town and encourage them to have dialogue with us and start learning the English language.”