- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack signed a bill into law yesterday declaring English the state's official language of government proceedings, making it the 27th state to enact such legislation.
Eighty-one percent of Iowans supported the measure, which legislators developed during two years of debate, but the influential Des Moines Register has editorially labeled it "an embarrassment" and "an exercise in arrogance" perpetuated by a "bunch of yahoos in the Legislature."
"I recognize that the bill is not without controversy," said Mr. Vilsack, a Democrat who is up for re-election next year.
"My hope is that we will look beyond the controversy and put politics behind us so we can focus on our commitments and responsibility to improve education for all our children."
Many Hispanics and a minority of the population in both political parties and across the social spectrum find repulsive the idea of designating English as pre-eminent. Some say it is thinly veiled racism.
Iowa is the 10th state since 1995 to make English its official language. The others are Alaska, Georgia, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, Wyoming and Missouri.
The reaction in Iowa to making America's dominant language official reflects the situation that prevails in the nation generally. Polls have repeatedly shown that Americans like the idea of designating English the nation's official language, especially if the legislation is written in a way that doesn't deride those who can't speak the language.
Its harshest critics say the effort is pursued by bigots who oppose immigration, feel threatened by diversity and dislike granting rights for "language-minority groups."
The American Civil Liberties Union calls English-only laws an abridgement of the rights of those who are not proficient in English. Its literature contends that the laws "perpetuate false stereotypes of immigrants and non-English speakers" and declares the laws "contrary to the spirit of tolerance and diversity" of the Constitution.
"The people feel as intensely as ever about making English the official language. Bills to make it so are being introduced all the time in Congress and in the states, because four out of five Americans favor it. The fifth is Congress," says Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of English First, a 150,000-member nonpartisan and nonprofit advocacy group.
"The federal government is pushing multilingualism and, as long as it does, state laws won't be enforced," Mr. Boulet says.
One example of politicians' acceptance of multilingualism occurred last night in Dallas. There, Dan Morales and Tony Sanchez, who are competing for the gubernatorial nomination in the Democratic primaries, held a debate in Spanish.
State laws establishing English as the official language vary considerably in their provisions. Generally, they require that all official documents be presented in English.
But some states prohibit government agencies from doing business in languages other than English. Others limit bilingual-education programs and disallow providing courtroom translators and multilingual emergency police hot lines.
The Iowa law orders that all state and local government documents, proceedings and publications be in English. But it makes exceptions for drivers' licenses; language instruction; documents related to commerce, tourism and public health; population counts; and, among other exceptions, any language necessary to securing constitutional rights.
Students of the English-only issue say those who favor making English the nation's official language believe that language is the glue that unites disparate social groups. They say that learning English enhances immigrants' attempts to fit into the mainstream culture and nutures civic responsibility.
That is the position of the English First organization. Yet like other groups, it also argues against bilingual education, which Mr. Boulet says has proved to be ineffective, and against multilingual programs.
A target in the English-only movement is Executive Order 13166, a Clinton-administration proclamation that calls for "improving access to services for persons with limited English proficiency."
Under the mandate, the government provides funds and an array of services for persons who do not speak English. In general, the government provides translation services and documents in many languages for persons seeking health and other benefits but who do not speak the language.
English-only backers say the Clinton order is inordinately expensive to enforce and has proved impossible to execute effectively. They say there are just too many immigrants speaking too many different languages and too few translators.
Additionally, they argue that the Clinton decree is counterproductive because it reduces immigrants' incentive to learn English and fosters the fragmentation of society.
The argument is an old one. Benjamin Franklin used it when writing in favor of an English-only America. In 1780, John Adams suggested that the Continental Congress create an academy to "purify, develop, and dictate usage" of English.
Theodore Roosevelt made an argument often quoted by English-only proponents, saying: "The one absolute certain way of bringing this nation to ruin or preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities. We have but one flag. We must also learn one language, and that language is English."


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