English Bill Vetoed in Arizona; Struggle Over Rights Continues
The NewStandard
May. 13, 2005

by Kari Lydersen

May 13 - Arizona’s governor vetoed legislation this week that would have made English the state’s official language. Advocates for people whose first language is not English expressed relief, but warned that the defeated legislation was just one in a slew of attacks on Latino and other immigrants in the state’s legislature.

Though the English-only legislation might not have affected immigrants as much as other pending and recently passed measures, such as a law that would give Arizona police the power to detain and deport immigrants, the symbolic significance of the language legislation makes it a rallying point for pro- and anti-immigrant forces.

Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano’s veto of SB 1167 is not necessarily the final word on the issue of declaring the state’s official language English. A similar bill passed by the House (HCR 2030) and now before Senate committee could put the idea to voters on the state ballot in November 2006. But in light of the governor’s SB 1167 veto, legislators have indicated that the political will to continue pushing it might not be sufficient.

The now vetoed bill asserted that the "official language of the state of Arizona is English," and proposed to "preserve, protect and enhance the role of English" by "protecting the rights of persons in the state who use English," "avoiding any official actions that ignore, harm or diminish the role of English as the language of the government" and "encouraging greater opportunities for individuals to learn English."

Senate Bill 1167 laid out a number of exceptions to the requirement for government agencies to use English, including actions protecting public health, facilitating law enforcement and emergency services, protecting the rights of criminal defendants, promoting tourism and trade, and other exceptions.

In her veto message, the governor argued that while people should be encouraged to speak English, the bill would not have facilitated that.

"The Legislature, to date, has failed to appropriate adequate funding to allow schools to teach English-language learners," she wrote. "Consequently, under Senate Bill 1167, English is required as the official language, but funds are not available to help non-English speakers to learn to read, write or speak English. Under these circumstances, making English the only language for official action is contradictory at best."

Molly McGovern, an organizer with the Arizona Interfaith Network, said that the governor’s veto represents "a major victory for Arizona and really for moderate politics in Arizona."

McGovern, whose organization is one of the main groups opposing anti-immigrant legislation in the state, said: "The far right ran this bill in order to put the governor in the corner so they can use these against her in 2006 when she runs for re-election. But we don’t think that will affect her; there are enough level-headed people in Arizona who understand these bills do not fix the broken immigration system."

For some immigrants like Arnulfo Dias, who has lived in the US for four years, finding the time to learn English is a major challenge.

"These laws are very bad," Dias said in an interview conducted in Spanish. "We need help in Spanish to be able to do our jobs and support our families. We need to be able to go to the police, government representatives, public functionaries and speak Spanish."

Diaz, who does landscaping and remodeling work in Mesa, Arizona, said most immigrants want to learn English, but with grueling hours at work it is hard for them to find the time and resources.

"[English-only laws] hurt our work and our families," he told The NewStandard. "We work the hardest jobs, all day in the sun. When I come home I want to sit down, have a glass of cold water, relax and talk with my family. We need time for our families. It’s not that people don’t want to learn English or can’t learn English; we want the American dream, we’re excellent workers. But it’s a question of time."

The proposed English bills are like déj  vu for immigrants’ rights proponents, who saw the state pass the nation’s most restrictive English-only law in 1988. That incarnation, called Proposition 106, had mandated that all government functions be carried out in English, including public officials’ conversations with constituents and city workers’ interactions with residents. Proposition 106 stayed on the books until 1998, when the state Supreme Court overturned it.

In practice, however, the law was largely ignored, and government employees continued to speak Spanish, Native American languages and other languages freely when the situation arose. With Arizona’s population counted as 25 percent Latino and 5 percent Native American in the 2000 census, it was natural for Native American clerks or Mexican-American police officers to continue to speak to others of their ethnicity in their native language.

This time around, supporters of the English-only initiatives have acknowledged the measures would be largely symbolic -- a move to "protect" the English language in the face of increasing immigration.

State Republican Representative Russell Pearce, who introduced the House bill, initially said it would save taxpayer money on printing government documents ˜ the state spends about $1.4 million on publications in languages other than English. But it turns out the majority of that money comes from federal funds.

"It’s not about money, it’s about protecting this English-speaking nation," Pearce, who did not return a call for this story, told The Arizona Republic.

Aside from English-only laws, Arizona has a history of discriminating against non-English speakers through its policies to teach English. Proposition 203, passed in 2000, attacked bilingual education. It mandated that students who have not mastered English be placed in English "immersion" classes, with languages other than English banned from speech and materials, rather than be provided bilingual instruction.

Outside Arizona, 27 states have already declared English as the official language. Additionally, there is currently a federal law with over 100 co-sponsors in the US House of Representatives that would make English the official national language.

"We need to put policy behind common language," said Rob Toonkel, spokesman for an organization called US English, one of the major groups pushing for language enforcement, in an interview with The NewStandard. "We need to say English is our official language, and we need to do everything we can to promote it. We’ve always been a nation of immigrants and a melting pot, but we’re losing a little bit of that. Rather than helping people learn English, the government is giving people a crutch with services in other languages."

McGovern of the Arizona Interfaith Network said anti-immigrant forces seem to feel empowered in the wake of another bill passed by voters last November. That bill, Proposition 200, prevents undocumented immigrants from accessing state "public benefits," including state-funded health care and financial aid for education.

"Once they passed Prop 200, I think [anti-immigrant legislators] just went crazy trying to see how much they could pass," McGovern said. "We’re at a major crossroads; this is a very critical time in Arizona history. We have a chance to make some logical immigration reform, and bills like this are not the answer."