Dole Renews 'English Only' Drive, but Is It Mostly Babble?

California community offers lessons for 'English Only'

AT first glance, there are enough Asian signs on Garvey and Atlantic streets here to fool visitors into thinking they are in Beijing, Seoul, or perhaps Tokyo.

But on closer inspection, the calligraphic pictograms include English descriptions: barber, dentist, grocery, carpets. The bilingual signs are a compromise reached here in the mid-1980s when this leafy suburb made national headlines in a community-wide clash over votes to declare English as its official language.

''The English-only movement here was very divisive,'' recalls former Mayor Judy Chu, now a city councilmember. A six-fold increase in Asian immigrants in this community east of Los Angeles over five years had left white residents a significant minority. A vocal faction backed then-Mayor Barry Hatch in proposing various ordinances to make English official, from street signs to materials in libraries and schools. One resolution eked through, only to be repealed later when activists galvanized voters to overturn the rulings and turn Mr. Hatch out of office.

The clashes and compromises made in Monterey Park are ones that could soon be surfacing in communities across the country.

An enduring - and controversial - drive to declare English the official language of the United States is gathering momentum. Senate majority leader and presidential hopeful Bob Dole (R) of Kansas raised the profile of the issue this week, when he declared in a speech in Indianapolis that ''with all the divisive forces tearing at our country, we need the glue of language to help hold us together.''

His call will likely buttress efforts to push such legislation through Congress. Next month, hearings are scheduled by Rep. Randy Cunningham (R) on a bill, co-sponsored by 181 lawmakers, to make English the official US language. A similar version awaits action in the Senate.

Critics and proponents of so-called ''English-Only'' legislation agree that the move to make English the official language of the US is, like the Monterey Park example, an outgrowth of rising concern over immigration.

Yet there is a political dimension, too. Like Proposition 187, a California initiative denying services to illegal immigrants, as well as recent moves to dismantle affirmative action laws, analysts say ''English-only'' resonates with angry white voters.

''Dole has just embraced the issue to pander to the Republican right,'' says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the Claremont Graduate School. Noting that Dole has joined other Presidential contenders and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia in calling for action, Ms. Jeffe says: ''Now everyone is jumping in to say they said it first.''

Backers of federal legislation hold that declaring English official is beneficial in uniting Americans by providing a common means of communication. They argue that multilingual government sends a message to non-English speakers that it is not necessary to learn English to get government accommodation in schools, welfare, and other public agencies such as motor vehicles.

The House legislation would encourage immigrants to learn English to use government services and participate in voting. Adoption of the laws would mean official government business at all levels must be conducted solely in English - including public documents, records, legislation, hearings, and public meetings.

The measures do not prevent immigrants from preserving their own cultures and languages in their personal lives. But they recommend that funds formerly spent providing government services in multiple languages go to support programs that teach English to non-English speaking immigrants.

Detractors see such moves as divisive, unnecessary, and impractical.

''Dole and others supporting these moves talk as if differing languages are the sole cause of strife in this country,'' says Irma Rodriguez, head of the language-rights program for MALDEF, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Holding that the kind of alternative language education that Dole wants ousted is the very means by which immigrants can be assimilated faster, she says: ''The founding fathers rejected [the notion of one official language], knowing that what brings us together is freedom of speech and religion.''

HARRY PACHON, who oversees an Hispanic studies project at Claremont College, says the lure of jobs and income in America are sufficient to insure that immigrants will learn English. He adds that ''English-only'' legislation runs into problems it cannot legislate around.

''What do you do about things such as [Rescue] 911 numbers, social service delivery, and child abuse clinics where you need to have bilingual personnel?'' he asks. ''Everywhere they have passed, these laws run into problems.''

Currently 22 states have enacted legislation adopting English as their official language for public documents and public proceedings. But in some, like California whose voting public passed Proposition 64 in 1986, legislatures have not followed through with enforcement.

''Legislators let it stay on the shelf where it belongs,'' says Bobbi Murray of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

Still, advocates say, the time for ''English-only'' has arrived. Besides Congress, legislation is currently pending in New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

US English, an advocacy group supporting the federal legislation, says 80 percent of American voters support making English the nation's official language of government.

''That's why this has become an issue in the Presidential race and why it will no doubt become an issue in the 1996 Congressional races as well,'' says Mauro Mujica, chairman of US English. ''

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