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Push on to repeal 'English Only,' but SL officials see little impact

Thursday, January 29, 2009

There is a movement underway at the Statehouse to repeal the law declaring English as an the Official Language of the state.

"I think it has given Iowa a bad name in the immigrant community and elsewhere around the country with that law on our books," said Democrat Rep. Bruce Hunter, who introduced the bill to repeal the law. Gov. Chet Culver is said to be in favor of the repeal.

In Storm Lake, local officials say they never backed off their service efforts to make the community welcoming to all, regardless of language.

"When the legislation passed, it didn't make a bit of difference efforts to make the community welcoming to all, regardless of language.

"When the legislation passed, it didn't make a bit of difference to us, and if it is repealed, it also will not change the way we provide service to all people," said Public Safety Director Mark Prosser. Storm Lake's Police Department broke new ground by establishing multi-lingual service officer positions some years ago.

The "English Only" law, considered largely symbolic, dates to the time that conservative Congressman Steve King was serving in the legislature, and fears that a growing immigrant population could overwhelm the language.

Proponents of a repeal say the law is backward in ineffective. Those who support retaining the law say it encourages newcomers to learn the language, and prevents government from having to provide paperwork and services in an expensive array of languages.

"The law never said we could not serve people the way we feel is necessary. Whether the law is there or not, we still have to serve everyone who walks through our doors, or who we may encounter when we are called out. We have to protect them, and their civil rights. We will continue to serve all people as well as we possibly can, regardless. If we experience a language barrier, we have to overcome it, and I expect us to overcome it. You play the hand you are dealt."

City Clerk Justin Yarosevich agrees. The city did not give up its efforts to accommodate a multi-lingual community when the law was passed, and repealing it would make little difference in local goverment operations, he says.

Neither chose to express an opinion on the repeal movement, or the philosophical impact of an English-Only law.

At the Statehouse, Storm Lake Rep. Gary Worthan told the Pilot-Tribune that the issue is currently receiving plenty of informal talk among the legislators, but has not yet seen any real action.

Worthan said he has mixed feelings on the law, and isn't yet sure how he would vote on the repeal.

"When you look back through history, a country or entity at odds with itself over a common language does not seem to last too long. We have to have a common base in our society, and I think that the English language almost has to be that base," he said Wednesday.

"I've read reports that in areas of California, all the government paperwork and ballots are being published in 47 different languages - that is simply a cost-prohibitive issue for state and local governments," he said.

While it seems that the prevailing sentiment in the country is against English as an Official Language laws - or at least the most vocal sentiment is in opposition - Worthan says he doesn't totally relate to that mindset.

"When people take their oath to become citizens, they say they can read and understand the English language, so why would it be necessary to have ballots and such things in all these other languages to start with?"

The feedback he has received so far seems entirely against the repeal, Worthan added. The people he has heard from are not trying to oppose immigration, but are concerned about sending the signal that it is not necessary for newcomers to learn the language. "If they don't understand English, they can't fully understand what is going on in their government, or cast a fully informed vote," he said.

The implication would also be that schools might be required to teach in a wide range of languages unless there is some form of English law, he feels.

The issue is split along party lines, and with Democrats in control in Washington, it is unlikely that a national Official Language law will be passed, leaving states to make the call on their own.

While local officials still plan to reach out in a multi-lingual fashion as needed, in 2008, a District Court judge ruled that the Secretary of State was violating the English Only law by offering voter registration forms in Spanish, Laotian and other languages. The office was forced to remove the forms and web site access in the other languages. Culver had been the Secretary of State when the law was passed with the signature of former Gov. Tom Vilsack in 2002, and Culver resisted it.

Census figures indicate that about 180,000 Iowans speak some native language other than English in the home, a 30 percent increase from 2000-2007.

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