Associated Press
Oklahoma state Rep. Randy Terrill,

GOP Lawmakers in Oklahoma Push for English-Only Government

January 16, 2009 11:29 AM
by Isabel Cowles
Despite opposition from local American Indian tribes, Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma are trying to pass a constitutional amendment requiring all government business to be conducted in English.

Oklahoma Divided on English-Only Legislation

Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma will renew their efforts to send an English-only constitutional amendment to voters.

Spearheaded by Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, the initiative reintroduces previously rejected legislation to make English the official language of the state.

Lawmakers in favor of the measure argue that it will help immigrants assimilate into U.S. society and will save taxpayer money on translation services. Supporters emphasize that the bill does not apply to Oklahoma's 39 federally recognized American Indian tribes and allows Braille and sign language in government services.

American Indians are opposing the measure, as they did when it was initially proposed in 2007. At that time, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith wrote a letter to lawmakers in which he called the measure, "an ugly symbol of intolerance." Smith continues to oppose the initiative: "The fact that the English-only policy being put forward today will not be applied to Indian languages does not mean that we think it is OK to do to another people what was done to our fathers," he said recently.

Related Topic: In Nashville, English First, or English Only?

On Jan. 22, citizens of Nashville, Tennessee, will also vote on a proposed law to require government officials to communicate only in English.

Eric Crafton, the author of the measure, calls the proposal “English First,” while critics have dubbed it, “English Only,” The New York Times reports.

Many Nashville educators, policymakers and immigration specialists are united in their opposition to the bill, which states, “No person shall have a right to government services in any other language [than English].” Even the traditionally conservative Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce is against the proposal for business reasons.

“Economics is global, and to be competitive you cannot drive away immigrants and the businesses that rely on them,” said Ralph J. Schulz, the chamber president.

“It is wrong morally because it diminishes the value of individuals and it speaks against the principles of liberty for all,” said Patricia Stokes, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Middle Tennessee, who spoke at a news conference.

Supporters of the legislation believe that, in addition to encouraging residents to learn English, the bill would save the city approximately $100,000 per year on translation services. 

Critics counter that federal law requires the city to spend most of that sum anyway. In addition, conservative lawmakers argue that voting on Crafton’s measure will cost about a half a million dollars in public money. Business leaders believe that if the law is approved, Nashville will lose millions in convention business.

Nashville has been called “the Athens of the South” for its diversity, though the English-only measure may be gaining momentum as the economic slowdown has turned some Nashville citizens against the growing immigrant population. Early voting began on Jan. 2 and will continue through Jan. 17.

Mr. Crafton initially introduced the legislation in 2006. He was inspired by his time spent in Japan with the U.S. Navy; he had to learn Japanese to conduct the business of daily life there. Although the Metropolitan Council approved the bill in 2007, then-Mayor Bill Purcell vetoed the measure.

Crafton collected more than twice as many signatures as necessary for a referendum to keep the proposal alive.

Tennessee Republicans have also made a more specific attempt at English-only legislation. Tennessee law already states that English is the official language of the state. However, in April 2008, GOP leaders in the state legislature attempted to revise a bill about septic tanks to include a measure allowing businesses to mandate that employees speak English. The effort failed on a largely partisan 51–46 vote.

Reference: 2000 census on U.S. language use

Nearly 3.5 million citizens in the United States do not speak English at all, according to data from the 2000 Census report.

Historical Context: America’s history with English-only movements

The history of English-only movements in the U.S. dates back as least as far as the 1920s, when Nebraska passed a constitutional amendment declaring English the official language, a xenophobic response to an influx of German immigrants.

The surge of Asian and Latin American immigrants that began in the 1960s reignited the issue; in 1981, Sen. S. I. Hayakawa of California sent a measure to Congress proposing a constitutional amendment that would declare English the official language of the United States.

Although Sen. Hayakawa’s proposal was never reported out of committee, it popularized an English-only debate that continues today. Other measures have been introduced in Congress, and failed; however, several states have passed English-only laws.

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