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English-Only Laws Serve To Appease Those Who Fear Inevitable

by Myriam Marquez

July 10, 2000
Copyright © 2000 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

A protester in Salt Lake City recently yelled out a question in Spanish to Mauro Mujica, the head of the national U.S. English movement.

Why, the protester asked, would a Chilean immigrant be advocating a state law in Utah to outlaw the use of foreign languages in government transactions?

Mujica shouted in Spanish, "Because I am an American."

The protester shot back, "We're all Americans."

The irony of that exchange shouldn't be lost on anyone who values freedom.

The Founding Fathers decided not to push any official language, because many of them were worldly men who knew the value of speaking several languages. In fact, the U.S. Constitution was immediately translated from English into several foreign languages to spread the good news about America's promise as the land of the free.

Mujica maintains that his group isn't against the private use of foreign languages, but that his mission is to ensure that Americans can communicate in English, "our common language," as he calls it.

Si, I know. The language in one's heart, one's soul, can't be wiped out because a law states that its use is forbidden in the public government arena. Mujica's use of Spanish, his first language, to respond to the protester illustrates that point.

I don't doubt that Mujica believes what he says. But many who support so-called English-only laws not only dislike the use of taxpayer money to translate voting ballots or state documents. They resent hearing people talk in a foreign language, particularly Spanish, among themselves in public places. They hate stumbling onto Spanish-language television shows or hearing a language they can't understand on the radio dial.

The irony is that English-only laws directed at government have done little to change the inevitable multicultural flavor of America.

Ever since the English-only movement charged ahead in the early 1980s to stop what many Americans perceived to be a threat to mom, apple pie and the stars and stripes, it has come up against the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment protections.

So, even though Florida passed an English-only law several years ago, the law hasn't made much of a difference. Government agencies use constitutionally mandated health or safety exemptions in the law to translate documents into Spanish or Haitian-Creole or other languages in which significant numbers of minorities would be affected.

Cops, school officials and emergency personnel are learning enough Spanish, Portuguese and other languages needed to communicate with newcomers, whether those folks are tourists or new residents.

In effect, English-only laws, which 25 states have passed so far, are paper tigers of symbolism meant to appease those who fear inevitable change.

With 32 million Hispanics living in the United States and concentrated in the most-populated states, Latinos, -- most of them U.S. citizens, -- can be a potent political force. Politicians know that.

That's why presidential front-runners have assigned staff to court Hispanic voters, and both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush pepper their speeches with Spanish when addressing Hispanic groups. Bush has gone so far as to showcase his Mexican-American nephew, George P. Bush, on the campaign trail.

In Utah, backers of the English-only proposal, which will go on the ballot in November, are on a fool's errand.

The proposal would allow government translations in court or when the public's health or safety are at stake. It also would exempt public dollars directed at expanding tourism -- a wise call as Utah prepares for the 2002 Winter Olympics. So what would change?

Nothing, zilch, nada.

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