In this city hall, official business is in Spanish

In many ways, the collection of trailers and brightly painted brick homes of El Cenizo give it the appearance of any other working-class border town.

The view from inside city hall, however, is unique.

Two weeks ago, city officials here voted to make Spanish the official language of business - the first city in the US to do so. Yet perhaps more explosively, they also passed an ordinance saying that any city employee who reports local residents to the Border Patrol would be fired.

At a time when the largest immigration wave in the nation's history is challenging long-held notions of what it means to be American, El Cenizo's laws are a bold new experiment.

Alternately praised as a pioneering response to a changing society or derided as ethnic partition, the measures have become a focal point in the debate over assimilation and US immigration policy.

With many border towns facing the same issues as El Cenizo, the success - or failure - of its decisions could echo throughout the Southwest.

Like many of its 7,800 residents, El Cenizo has not been around here long. Located about 10 miles southeast of Laredo and about a mile from the Rio Grande, the town started out in the early 1980s as a "colonia," an unincorporated housing development with no sanitation, no running water, and no electricity.

When it incorporated in 1989, the city began to attract mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants, who came for the cheap land and proximity to jobs in Laredo and nearby ranches.

But until recently, few citizens took part in city council meetings, which were held in English. This meant they didn't participate in recent decisions to raise taxes, begin garbage pickup, and build a new fire station.

"Not everyone can speak English and they shouldn't be locked out of government just because they're in the process of learning it," says Vibiana Andrade, attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Los Angeles.

For Flora Barton, El Cenizo city commissioner, starting Spanish-led meetings was an easy decision to make. "Almost everyone speaks Spanish in El Cenizo," she says. "That doesn't mean that we want to be Mexican or go become a part of Mexico. We're proud to be American. Just because you speak Spanish doesn't make you a noncitizen."

According to Ms. Barton, most children in El Cenizo have adopted English as their first language in public schools, and many adults take English lessons at the community center.

The wrong signals?

Yet critics say that El Cenizo's Spanish-language rule sends the wrong signal to immigrants.

"The English language is the fire under the melting pot," says Tim Schultz, executive director of US English, a group that promotes English as an official language of the US. "We're pretty sure that with this ordinance in place, we're going to see the second generation and the third generation aren't going to be learning English either." The people of El Cenizo, he says, "may not be part of a movement, but they're comfortable not becoming American."

Even Hispanic elected officials from nearby towns are skeptical of the decision.

"Eventually, they will have to realize English is the language, and they are in the United States," said Webb County Judge Mercurio Martinez.

For all the cultural debates over assimilation that the Spanish ordinance has sparked, the city council's second ordinance setting up the town as an immigration "haven" promises to be even more divisive.

Some legal experts say the ordinance is troubling because it promises to fire a public employee merely for obeying federal law, but defenders counter that the concept of havens is protected by US law.

Indeed, El Cenizo is not the first city to take on US immigration policy. During the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, a number of US cities - including San Francisco, New York, and Chicago - passed ordinances to protect refugees from war-torn El Salvador and Guatemala. The rationale at the time was that a city government cannot operate without the trust of its residents, and undocumented residents may not report crimes or cooperate with police if they fear being deported.

The language of the 1996 Immigration Reform Act aimed to squelch such ordinances, but it left plenty of loopholes. "What that federal statute assumes is that you have information to withhold," says Robert Rubin, an attorney who helped pass a haven ordinance in San Francisco. "What our ordinance says is that police officials, or public health officials, may not inquire about immigration status. If they don't inquire, then there's nothing that they can tell."

In El Cenizo, Barton says this sort of resolution was the only way to regain public trust in government. With Border Patrol agents conducting daily searches of Laredo-bound buses, "some people were saying it was us calling the Border Patrol," says Barton, who was elected in November, about the same time the Border Patrol stepped up its presence here.

With the haven resolution passed, she believes people will now begin to trust their city officials and come to them with problems, including complaints against the Border Patrol.

For their part, Border Patrol officials say El Cenizo's haven won't have much effect on their operations, since local residents and not city officials provide most of their tip-offs. "El Cenizo doesn't have that many city employees anyway," says Border Patrol spokesman Mike Herrera.

What El Cenizo thinks

In town, the reaction is mostly supportive, although there are some skeptics. Virginia Salazar, a nutritionist at the community center, worries that all this press attention will make outsiders think El Cenizo is a lawless place.

"I don't think it's going to change anything, because there's a lot of Border Patrol that come by here," says Ms. Salazar. As for the Spanish-only meetings, "People are going to think that there's no one here speaks English, and it's not true."

But Susan Reynero, clerk at the Los Compadres convenience store, says the city may be building bridges with the community at a time when regular Border Patrol stops are putting local residents on edge.

"The Spanish meetings make sense, because it's the adults who are attending, and it's the children who are learning English at school," she says as a swarm of children chatter in a patois of English and Spanish, buying cold sodas and popsicles. As for the Border Patrol, she sighs: "It's OK if they stop the bus once in a while. But they do it every day. It becomes frustrating."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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