MARCIANO ROBLES recently petitioned the state of Arizona to give him back the snackmobile van it impounded after he was arrested on charges of using the vehicle to deal in stolen property. But the county assistant prosecutor asked the judge not to grant Mr. Robles's request because his petition was written in Spanish.
Both the prosecutor and an assistant state attorney general say Robles's plea violated the state's constitutional amendment making English Arizona's ``official'' language.
Robles's efforts to recover his van finally began wending their way through the judicial system after his lawyer, Hector Estrada, filed a supplement to the original petition - this time in English. Mr. Estrada, however, asked the judge to rule that non-English-speaking residents cannot be prohibited from filing petitions in their native language.
Estrada based his complaint on constitutional guarantees of ``equal protection and due process,'' arguing that every person in the United States has the right to petition for redress - no matter the language used.
``It doesn't say only if you speak English,'' Estrada says. ``It is not drawn that way in our US Constitution nor is it drawn that way in the state constitution.''
Estrada's complaint has the potential to blossom into a major confrontation between those who favor bilingualism in some government services and those who favor making English the official language of the US.
In November, Arizona became the 17th state to enact a law, or make a constitutional amendment, mandating the ``official'' use of English, when its voters narrowly adopted Proposition 106. The proposition became Article 28 of the Arizona Constitution, which says English is to be used exclusively by state government. Such amendments are part of a national trend to counter a slide toward bilingualism, contends Robert Park, chairman of Arizonans for Official English.
Arizonans for Official English spent $300,000 to campaign to make English the state's official language. It was supported in its efforts by U.S.English, a national organization which has hired a local attorney to monitor the Robles case. U.S.English may enter the case in opposition to Estrada's efforts to test the amendment's constitutionality.
``Not only in Arizona, but across the country, government is tilting towards official bilingualism by allowing certain things to be accomplished in languages other than English,'' Mr. Park says.
``People ask why should any United States citizen, voting in this country, for example, require a ballot in any language other than English?'' Park contends that bilingualism as official policy ``creates a disincentive'' to learn English.
The Linguistic Society of America (LSA) disagrees. In a recent resolution, the LSA contended: ``The English language in America is not threatened. All evidence suggests that recent immigrants are overwhelmingly aware of the social and economic advantages of becoming proficient in English, and require no additional compulsion to learn the language.''