Saturday, November 8, 2008

English-only fallout hard to predict

Other cities' results offer little insight By Janell Ross • THE TENNESSEAN • November 8, 2008 When Davidson County residents go to the polls Jan. 22, they'll have one thing to consider: Should Nashville become the largest U.S. city to name English as its official language, limiting to English virtually everything from ordinary interactions with government to Metro publications and meetings? What's likely to happen if the plan passes is difficult to measure, based on results from other U.S. cities that have taken similar steps. Advocates have said it's a protective policy able to prevent social fissures and inspire or force English language learning, as well as a confirmation of the Founding Fathers' intent and a money-saver. And, said Metro Councilman Eric Crafton, who has been the driving force behind the conversation about language in Nashville for three years, there's something more: "A long-term effect will be kind of like an insurance policy. … English will be enshrined as our government's official language once and for all." Opponents argue that the measure would do nothing to help or encourage language learning, would make Nashville appear backward and unwelcoming, and potentially would dampen the city's economic and social development. The real value of English-language measures is that they officially identify English as the "controlling" language, said K.C. McAlpin, executive director of ProEnglish, an Arlington, Va.-based organization that supports measures to make English the official language and that provided most of the funding for the Nashville language campaign. The Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based group that monitors extremist activity, has described ProEnglish as a hate-group-affiliated organization because its founder is linked to organizations, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, that have been labeled hate groups. Results are mixed Around the country, 28 states and several cities and towns — all considerably smaller than Nashville — have taken steps to declare English the official language. In Farmer's Branch, Texas, population 27,485, a 2006 English-language measure that included exceptions for matters of public safety led the city to stop sending out notices on water bills in both English and Spanish, and city signs bearing both languages were changed. It remains in effect. "You could also look at what's happened in Farmer's Branch and then look at what's happened in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloom berg just signed an executive order commanding city offices to (be equipped to) operate in six languages," McAlpin said. "That could have never happened if a law like they have in Farmer's Branch were in place in New York." Farmer's Branch city staff reached this week could not quantify cost savings attributable to the new policy. There also are cities where English-only measures haven't had much of a tangible impact because they haven't remained on the books for long. In Pahrump, Nev., population 24,631, a 2006 ordinance called for all official government business to be conducted in English, keeping legally required public notices out of non-English-speaking publications. Town leaders repealed the measure on the grounds that it may be unconstitutional and un enforceable. And in Valley Park, Mo., population 6,302, a 2006 English-language measure became law along with a requirement that landlords and business owners verify the legal immigration status of renters and employees. At points, all have been the subject of litigation. The English-language and landlord measures were repealed because of legal concerns. Litigation related to the two measures has cost Valley Park at least $200,000, according to public records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri. On Tuesday, 86 percent of Missouri voters approved a statewide measure making English the state's official language and barring translation services in most cases. But, because the state does not provide any such services, the impact is largely symbolic, said Anthony Rothert, legal director for the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. Nashville is different In Nashville, the measure that voters will consider does include exceptions for matters of health or public safety. And because the change would be to the Metro Charter and not merely an ordinance, it would not be subject to the same sort of council repeals that undid English language measures in other cities. Instead, a separate charter amendment effort would have to be mounted to alter or eliminate it. But the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee has made clear that it will take whatever steps are necessary to block the measure, including litigation. But should the language measure receive voter approval, it may also be stymied by something else. "If the ordinance is passed on January 22, most people, as they go about their lives, won't notice any difference whatsoever," said Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of Springfield, Va.-based English First. English First is a nonprofit organization that advocates for federal law making English the nation's official language. "That's been our experience with these things. ...The reality is that most of the language mandates that drive people crazy are federally mandated." Contact Janell Ross at 615-726-5982 or

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