Watch Your (Official) Language

Missouri, a key presidential swing state and home to one of the most hotly contested gubernatorial races, will test what some see as voters' attitudes toward immigrants this November with a ballot measure to make English the only language of state government.

"It's just not a practical thing having ballots and things in many languages," said Janet Renner, the founder of Missourians Against Illegal Immigration a group that supports the proposed constitutional amendment.

"We want to prevent the expense upon the taxpayer," she said. "The state's money is the people's money. That's what people don't quite get. It doesn't hit them in the face the same way that paying for gas does."

Critics of such "official-English laws" say the measures violate federal civil rights protections by preventing communication between immigrants and public servants. "They just make things more difficult for state workers on the ground," said Sam Jammal, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund

Jammal said such measures stem from frustration with federal inaction on immigration. "Some folks blur the lines between immigration debates and language policy debates," he said. "We need to step back and not equate the two debates."

The ballot issue will be decided Nov. 4, when Missouri voters also will determine their next governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and treasurer. The primary election for those offices is today (Aug. 5). 

Thirty states have some form of official-English law, said Rob Toonkel, a spokesman for U.S. English, Inc., a group that lobbies for the laws nationwide. These laws trim translation costs from state budgets, encourage immigrants to learn English and unify the country, the group argues.

"It's the whole thing about protecting our culture," Renner said. "Our national language is under attack. I believe the way we protect it is to pass an amendment to the Missouri constitution. Hopefully, other states will follow."

Official-English measures have appeared on the ballot in nine states and passed every time. Missouri's proposed amendment would require all meetings, teleconferences and Web-based chats involving public business to be conducted in English.

Missouri is not the only state to debate official-English laws this year. Consider this:

  • A citizen's initiative on the ballot in Oregon would curb the length of time students with limited English skills can be taught in their native language.
  • This is Iowa's first election without voter registration forms in other languages because of a recent court ruling upholding the state's official-English law.
  • Ohio's popular governor, Democrat Ted Strickland, may face a bill to make English the state's official language just in time for the election. While Strickland is not up for re-election this year, the entire General Assembly is.

"I think a lot of these [English laws] tend to be more symbolic," Jammal said. Even proponents agree that the earliest official-English measures were more akin to those designating official state birds than enforceable policies.

The most sweeping official-English law, Arizona's 1988 constitutional amendment prohibiting government employees from communicating on the job in anything but English, was overturned on free speech grounds by the state Supreme Court in 1998. The newest spate of official-English laws uses more careful language to change state policy without flunking judicial tests.

The Missouri General Assembly recognized English as the state's "common language" in 1998. The proposed amendment would translate that idea into practical terms, excluding other languages from any "official proceeding." a phrase lifted from the state's open meetings law. "We worked to tighten up the language of the bill," said Missouri state Rep. Tim Jones (R). "We wanted to make sure it said what we wanted it to say."

What it says is that all state-produced documents or state-conducted business - from statehouse newsletters to public hearings - will occur in English.

Renner said she is optimistic about the measure's chances, pointing to widespread support for Gov. Matt Blunt's (R) tough immigration law, signed last month, which penalizes employers of undocumented workers and requires proof of citizenship to access social services.

Blunt is not seeking re-election. The wide-open gubernatorial race features four Republicans in the Aug. 5 primary. The two more serious GOP contenders, U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof and State Treasurer Sarah Steelman, publicly support the English measure.

Democrats will likely field as a candidate Attorney General Jay Nixon, who has said he fears the measure could handicap the government's ability to serve legal residents. Nixon is up against a virtual unknown, Daniel Carroll, in the primary.

Oregonians face a different question Nov. 4 as they decide whether to limit English-as-a-second-language (ESL) instruction in a student's native tongue to two years before integrating the student in English-only classrooms. Sponsor Bill Sizemore says immigrant children need to be immersed in English to master the language.

"This is not an anti-immigrant measure," Sizemore said. "We want you to succeed. We're not going to let the schools sidetrack you."

Critics question the method and the motive. "Really, it's political posturing that does nothing to close the achievement gap," Jammal said.

The Missouri and Oregon ballot box battles come on the heels of a landmark legal victory for the official-English movement in March. A judged ruled in favor of Iowa's 2002 official-English law that prohibits the state from producing any official documents in foreign languages, including voter registration forms. The state had been posting translations of registration forms online.

Iowa's Attorney General Tom Miller (D) is reviewing the case to determine if federal guarantees override the ruling, said Eric Tabor, Miller's chief of staff. The federal Voting Rights Act protects some language minorities by requiring voting forms in their native language in communities with at least 5 percent or 10,000 minority language speakers. It is unlikely any Iowa community qualifies for translated forms for the 2008 election, Toonkel of U.S. English said.

Jammal, from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said laws like Iowa's create confusion for state agencies. "They skew the ability of officials to comply with federal law," he said.

Many state agencies in Iowa that depend on federal funding are sidestepping the state ruling in deference to federal law. Millions of federal dollars for state road projects, for example, could be at risk if the Iowa Department of Transportation stops printing public meeting notices in Spanish, said Dena Gray-Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Iowa DOT. The Civil Rights Act prohibits any recipient of federal funds from discriminating based on "national origin."

But proponents say the laws actually save states money in the long run. Idaho's 2007 statute requires state agencies to return to the general fund any money that was designated for translating or printing materials in foreign languages.

The ability of states to lure corporate investment helps drive the official-English debate in Ohio, where a bill to make English the state's official language is in the works.

Strickland has threatened to veto Republican state Rep. Robert Mecklenborg's official-English bill, which boasts the support of 85 percent of Ohio voters, according to a June Quinnipiac University poll.

"The governor believes this bill has the potential to drive away new jobs, new investments and new economic development in Ohio," said Keith Dailey, the governor's spokesman. Strickland is working to seal a $1 billion deal with a Russian-owned steel company, Dailey said.

Toonkel dismissed these fears, however, pointing to the presence of foreign automakers in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee - states with official-English laws.