California vote speeds US drive to make English `official'. Hispanic, civil liberties groups oppose move, question its purpose
Boston — ``English only.'' These words have sparked a heating national debate. A move is afoot in America to make English the official language not only of state and local governments but also of the nation, through an amendment to the United States Constitution.
Californians helped to ignite the movement when they voted 3 to 1 in November for Proposition 63, a proposal to make English the state's official language.
Heading the national drive are U.S. English, an organization formed three years ago by former US Sen. S.I. Hayakawa of California, and various state legislators.
Opposing the move are Hispanic groups concerned that the movement will stir up anti-Hispanic emotions, civil rights watchdog agencies such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and organizations and state legislators who question the cultural value of such laws.
``America agrees with us,'' says Steve Workings, a lobbyist for U.S. English. ``Let's make English our nation's official language. This idea is neither mean nor racist.''
U.S. English will push for the passage of Proposition 63-type laws in other states, says Girda Bikales, its executive director.
``Calls for us to write model English-only legislation are coming from all over the country,'' says Ms. Bikales, speaking from the group's national office in Washington, D.C.
``We definitely will increase our efforts to get a constitutional amendment making English our nation's official language,'' she says.
``We oppose the movement,'' says Arturo Vargas, senior educational policy fellow of the National Council of La Raza, a national Hispanic organization formed in 1965 to help Hispanic immigrants adjust to life in the US.
``On paper Prop. 63 is innocuous,'' Mr. Vargas says. ``Its effect is much deeper. It would eliminate all public use of any non-English language. The end result would be a community divided along ethnic lines. This offends me.''
Proposition 63 poses a significant threat to civil rights and equal protection under the law for people who may speak a language other than English, says Wade Henderson of the Washington, D.C., office of the ACLU.
``We expect strong legal challenges to English-only in California,'' he says. ``And more problems could arise in Texas and Florida where there are large numbers of Spanish-speaking people.'' The whole one-language idea is a byproduct of the push for immigration reform, he says, and the ACLU will seek to be alert to any threat to the rights of the individual that it may cause.
This proposal is dangerous, Mr. Vargas says. It targets nonwhites, he says. ``I question the motives behind this type of legislation,'' he adds. ``It could eliminate all public use of non-English languages.''
The success of future English-only legislation may depend on how California implements Proposition 63.
Supporters there want government in Sacramento to print no more bilingual ballots, to post no more bilingual traffic signs, and to reduce other bilingual services, which some contend are costly to taxpayers.
Also subject to the English-only drive would be such services as bilingual education, court translators and interpreters, and multilanguage printing of such documents as drivers' licenses and unemployment benefit forms.
Proposition 63 cannot currently be made applicable nationwide. Federal voting-rights law requires that bilingual ballots be provided in elections in 197 counties - where the population is at least 10 percent Hispanic.
Pro-English politicians say Hispanics are spoon-fed extra services, but they failed last year in efforts to anglicize some activities. In Dade County (Miami), Fla. the marriage bureau survived pressures to conduct weddings in English only. Los Altos, Calif., refused to anglicize its name to The Heights.
National advertisers do not adhere to English only. They push their goods in Spanish-language media - on 300 television stations, on 200 radio stations, and in 200 newspapers. They are spending $300 million this year in TV commercials on Spanish-language outlets, reports The Economist, a British publication.
A typical state battle will be fought in Massachusetts. Heading the English-only forces is Republican state Rep. John H. Loring whose bill passed the state House of Representatives, but failed in the Senate earlier this year. Buoyed by the success of Proposition 63 in California, Mr. Loring says he has resubmitted his English-only bill for the next session in January. His bill, he says, simply states, ``The English language will be the official language of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.''
``This bill is for the good of the people who speak another language when they come to Massachusetts,'' he says.
``Some people have the misconception that this is punitive,'' he adds. ``It doesn't mean everything's done in English. That's impossible. On the other hand, business, education, and all meaningful activities are conducted in English, but we have no laws.
``Why not make English official? This will encourage newcomers from other lands to learn our language for their own good.''
Democratic state Sen. William Keating objects. He says: ``No constructive purpose can be served by passing such a law in Massachusetts. It can cause confusion and divisiveness. It places barriers between citizens and foreign arrivals. It could play into people's fears.''
Senator Keating, chairman of the Senate's steering and policy committee, opposed the 1986 bill. The Senate took no action.
The National Council of Teachers of English warned lawmakers and educators of what it termed the dangers of English-only in a resolution at its national convention Nov. 26. The council pledged ``to oppose actively action intended to mandate or declare English as an official language or to `preserve,' `purify,' or `enhance' the language.''
``Personally, I'd say this legislation is absurd on its face,'' said John C. Maxwell, executive director of the council. ``It has potentially harmful implications.''
California is one of eight states with English as their official language.
Others are Nebraska, Illinois, Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia, and Tennessee. At least 16 other states considered bills during 1986, but none of them passed. More than 25 states are expected to act on bills in 1987, says U.S. English's Mr. Workings.
One state, New Mexico, officially recognizes two languages, English and Spanish, as official.