BETWEEN THE LINES - English as a non-issue

Tuesday, January 29, 2002

You can set your watch by it. No sooner do Iowa lawmakers get their bags stowed in Des Moines than some of them start beating the old horse - that English as the Official Language bill.

Never mind that most Iowans got past any neurosis about ethnic diversity years ago, there is still a chance to milk a little more political attention in the form of fear-mongering over a made-up threat to the English language.

In an election year, any knife that can be twisted will come out of the kitchen drawer.

Some are suggesting that the surge in patriotism since September's terrorist attacks has given the issue new momentum.

That's sad - and it isn't patriotism.

This issue has little practical importance. Proponents who don't want to be stained by its symbolism will tell you it's only to keep the state from

having to print forms in other languages. Do you really think this debate would rage for six years over a few forms?

Virtually all of the state's business is already done in English, anyway.

So why does it come up every time lawmakers hit Des Moines?

"The issue resonates with many who are worried about a surge in immigration altering the state's character. Backers say approving the measure is good politics because the state remains overwhelmingly white, even though immigration has increased," says Mike Glover, the veteran statehouse political analyst for the Associated Press.

And since Governor Vilsack has expressed reservations about the English-only measure, some GOP strategists would like to put him the position of vetoing a popular measure in an election year, he adds.

One thing we can all agree on - immigrants should learn the language, not for the state's sake, but for their own. They will need it to get to know their neighbors, help their kids study for school, advance in jobs, become community leaders.

Just how legislators expect an English-only law to achieve this is hard to explain.

If they really wanted to help people learn, instead of passing such a negative law, they would finally assemble some real English as a Second Language programming.

While the state has wasted half a decade arguing about a meaningless law, communities have been largely left to fend for themselves to teach English to both children and adults.

Storm Lake, for one, has been a leader in that regard. Here, they know an English-only law isn't the answer to anything.

House majority leader Chris Rants of Sioux City suggested this week that the measure could assure that local governments aren't put in the expensive position of being forced to conduct business in more than one language.

At the other end of the spectrum, on the front door of the Storm Lake City Hall, you will find a greeting in three languages. Some, it seems, aren't so afraid of diversity.

Iowa had better face it - its hopes for growth will depend at least partly on immigrants. All colors and voices and religions of people. It isn't such a bad thing, and it's an insult to Iowans to suggest that we need a law to protect who we are.

It's too bad lawmakers couldn't come up with a better idea. They've had years to think of something better, a positive to bring Iowans together.

Maybe this is the year they will finally be able to push English-only through.

But this issue will be solved in the neighborhoods, by reaching out, not in Des Moines, by passing another law.