Congressman Steve King, representing increasingly diverse western Iowa, testified on behalf of an English as the Officials Language bill before the U.S. House Education and Workforce subcommittee this week.
King applauded the action he had led in the Iowa Statehouse toward such an English Language bill in the Iowa Legislature, signed into law in 2002.
"The American people overwhelmingly support unifying this country through our common bond of language and empowering immigrants to fully realize the American dream," King testified.
Closer to home, feelings are a bit more mixed on the "official language" issue."
Storm Lake's state representative, and a veteran city council member, said that they don't oppose a mandate for the government's business to be done in English, but both note that this is no complete answer to the issue of immigrant assimilation.
"Steve is going to do what Steve is going to do," said Iowa Representative Mary Lou Freeman, a fellow Republican who worked with King in the Iowa Legislature.
Freeman said that it is a given that newcomers need to learn English in order to be successful in American society, but she said she is also aware that mandating "English only" will be seen by some as being less than welcoming to diversity.
"There's no doubt in my mind that it will be seen as a mixed message," she said.
Freeman does not criticize King on that issue. "I understand that his constituency seems to support that message."
Personally, Freeman said she feels English education must be stressed in the process. In Iowa, the Legislature backed up its English law by extending funding for local efforts to teach immigrants English as a second language. "It was the right thing to do." The feds could do the same if they are willing to, she says.
"I guess I'm rather tolerant. I've traveled in other countries, and I realize how difficult it can be for people not to understand," she said.
"The fact is that most of the Hispanic immigrants living here, if they had their choice, would rather be back home living with their extended families. They feel lonely, and possibly somewhat isolated."
Legislation alone won't reach such people, Freeman feels.
"I would rather we look at more opportunities for education in the communities than penalizing people for not understanding English."
She also feels it may be naive for people to think that an official language law would transform the voices being heard in diverse communities like Storm Lake, which happens to be Congressman King's hometown.
Freeman said she played the organ as a teenager for a church that still conducted services in the Swedish language. "Elderly couples would come early just to listen. After all those years, they still were clinging to their native language somewhat, and the same was true for Germans and other immigrant groups here. People around here should realize that changes in language do not come quickly. Unfortunately, the generation of European immigrants that remembers that fact first-hand is now pretty much gone. Still, we should know as we deal with immigrants today that for an awful lot of us, it took years for our own ancestors to make this transition."
Any English language legislation must be designed to help, not to oppose the native languages of the newcomers, she said.
"I firmly believe that they can and should retain their cultures. And that we should come to enjoy and appreciate those cultures just as much as we have all the others we have come to know and love within America," Freeman said.
While bilingual voting rights and a border wall have been among the issues King has been vocal for, Freeman isn't quick to climb on those bandwagons with her fellow Republican.
"Quite frankly, I don't think it would be wrong to have instructions available on a ballot in Spanish, or to try to have volunteers available at some precincts to interpret if there is enough interest to show that it is needed," she said of the voting rights debate. "I don't think the whole ballot would need to be done, because basically it is a list of names that will be the same regardless of the language it is typed in. The problem if you start doing whole ballots and things like that in Spanish is that there are a lot of other immigrant groups too, and even in a town like Storm Lake, it would be pretty hard to have a ballot done up in every possible native dialect of the population."
King's bill to declare English as the official language, House Resolution 997, awaits approval by the committee to make it to the floor of the House for consideration.
King cites Census figures showing that almost 12 million Americans are "linguistically isolated, up 54 percent from 1990 to 2000. About one in every 25 homes in the country have no one who speaks English well.
King said that the immigrants who are not learning English earn considerably less pay than those who do.
He said his bill would not require English to be spoken, but would mandate that all of the government's business be conducted in English. Exceptions could be made for emergency medicine and safety services, judicial proceedings, foreign language instruction and tourism promotion.
King said that one current poll indicates that 84 percent of Americans and 77 percent of Hispanics want English to be named the official language of U.S. government operations.
At the local level, Storm Lake City Council member Jim Treat says he understands where King is coming from in his English as the Official Language campaign, but added that such legislation cannot and should not keep local communities from choosing to make the accommodations necessary to communicate with newcomers.
"Storm Lake has been hospitable in that sense, from city hall to a lot of other local entities. I think you could say we have put out the welcome mat, and I think that has been the right thing to do," Treat said.
Among those efforts, the city hired two community service officers for the police department who can speak in Spanish and Lao, respectively. City Hall's doors are stenciled in three languages.
"I do support the Congressman, and personally, I don't think the English bill would be discriminatory. I don't think it will stop us at the communities level from reaching out however we need to, including accommodations for elections," Treat said.
King has at times chosen unfortunate words, Treat said, especially in joking about the appearance of a respected elderly journalist recently.
"A lot of other people have said some terrible things, often about our own president, and nobody calls them to task," Treat adds. "One thing I can say about Steve King - like him or dislike him, he is a man of his convictions and all of the criticism doesn't seem to slow him down at all."
Treat said he sees a great need to unify the nation, in language and other issues, such as support of the military. "We are going to have to eliminate some of the infighting if we are to be successful in our efforts at home and around the world," he said.
The language bill may expedite governmental business and be one step, he feels, but will not change societal situations. "In all honesty, I haven't learned Spanish, so I can't criticize [those who are slow to lean English]. People can speak the language they choose and we aren't going to change that."
Some parts of the country are experiencing many more assimilation problems than Storm Lake, he feels.
"Imagine being in a school system that is trying to teach people who speak in 40 different native languages. In Storm Lake, I believe we have eight or nine different native languages currently, and we have been fortunate to find the people who can help us out in assisting people in learning English."
Storm Lake has never had a need or desire to attempt any local legislation dictating language, and Treat sees no reason to consider any in the future.
"It has never crossed out minds. I have no qualms with people from around the world coming in," he said. "Immigration is a complex subject to tackle, but I did just read of a city in New Jersey that got tired of waiting for a federal immigration policy and decided to adopt their own local immigration law."
Regardless of whether King's English legislation sails or fails, Treat said the work to assimilate newcomers not just as residents, but as Americans, cannot stop there.
"We should remember the words of Martin Luther King," he said. "He longed for the time when every human being would be judged by their character, not the color of their skin. I think we still need to be working towards that."