English-Only and English as Official Language Bills Gain Momentum

State legislators in Indiana and Minnesota are pushing laws requiring public documents and other government business in those states to be done only in English.

Minnesota state Senators introduced their bill on Monday; the measure is similar to one introduced in the state House earlier this month.

Indiana state House representatives voted 63 to 26 last week to require all business to be conducted in English. Next the bill heads to the state Senate. Like Minnesota, Indiana’s measure allows exceptions to the English-only rule in cases of public health or safety situations.

Official English advocates say they feel the momentum is on their side this year, with many Republicans who support the measure having won in the November elections and in a position to move the issue forward.

“No doubt about it,” said Tim Schultz, director of government relations for U.S. English, the Washington D. C. group that leads national lobbying efforts for Official English laws.

“With the results of the last election, at the state and federal levels, we have the best climate for passing [Official English] legislation that we’ve had in the last 15 years.”

Schultz said action on Official English language bills should come soon in Congress, as well. He said U.S. English has worked with Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican who is vice chairman of the House Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, on a bill that he says is likely to be introduced in the next few weeks.

King could not be reached for comment.

Schultz said 31 states have Official English language measures, though a great deal of them, he said, are largely symbolic, doing little more than declaring English the language of the state.

Indiana actually has had an Official English measure since 1984, but it’s been largely symbolic, Schultz said.

Those who support Official English bills say they are necessary because the business of government should not be conducted in foreign languages. They believe that foreign language services and documents – such as government agency documents, applications, driver’s license exams and voting ballots, for instance – make immigrants less driven to learn English.

“We are making our statement that even though we’re a diverse country, we have one official language, and it’s English,” said Indiana Rep. Ralph Foley, who is Republican.

Indiana Sen. Mike Delph, also a Republican, said that his state’s residents are tired of pressing “1” for English when calling businesses, or hearing Spanish announcements over the Wal-Mart intercom or struggling to understand a worker in the McDonald’s drive-thru.

He said that although the measures in the state legislature don’t address those situations, they send the message that that English is the language to be spoken in Indiana.

He said the state’s website shouldn’t have Spanish information, and that public universities should not even print applications for foreign students at taxpayer expense.

Critics of such measures say they are mean-spirited and unnecessary. They believe they are discriminatory and hostile to immigrants’ native languages and cultures.

In Indiana, opponents of the measure say it does not provide adequate details about what documents and agencies should be included, and they say it lacks a comprehensive list of state documents that would be affected.

Some state departments are seeking exemptions. Among them is the Department of Revenue, which offers Spanish forms on its website and gets thousands of calls a year from Latino residents seeking information about taxes.

Indiana Senate President pro tempore David Long, a Republican, has expressed ambivalence about the Official English bill.

“There are plenty of people here legally whose dominant language is still Spanish,” Long said. “That’s historically been true of many immigrants.”

Rep. Matt Pierce, a Democrat, questions the full practical effect of the proposal, and says it’s even more difficult to know why it’s needed, since supporters aren’t pointing to any particular foreign-language documents that are creating problems.

He says one thing is clear, however.

“That was a message for the tea party crowd,” he said. “Republicans wanted to send a message to certain supporters who seem to be on the rise in their party that they’re with them.”

He added that when delegates drafted the Indiana Constitution more than 150 years ago, they ordered thousands of copies printed in German so that German-speaking residents would understand. But, Pierce noted, that drew few questions and little controversy.

This story contains material from The Associated Press.


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