It’s Official: English-Only Movement Gains Traction

It's official: English-only movement gains traction
Hispanic civil rights groups alarmed

By Howard Witt
Tribune senior correspondent
Chicago Tribune
Published October 15, 2006

HOUSTON — When Tim O'Hare drives through the aging north Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch where he serves as a city councilman, he sees signs of trouble everywhere. Property values are stagnating, he says. Crime is rising while schools are declining.

And too many people are speaking Spanish.

“Our retail establishments are in deplorable shape–half of the businesses aren't filled, and the rest are filled with Spanish-speaking businesses,” O'Hare said. “Our citizens are still majority non-Spanish speaking by far. Spanish probably will overtake the city if we don't do something about this.”

The problems, O'Hare believes, are caused by undocumented immigrants. And the solution he's proposing, in the form of a city ordinance, would make English the official language of Farmers Branch and crack down hard on any landlord who rents to an illegal immigrant or any employer who hires one.

It's a position that places O'Hare in the vanguard of an English-only movement that is gaining new adherents in cities and states across the nation and causing growing alarm among Hispanic civil rights groups.

Frustrated by what they perceive as the federal government's failure to secure U.S. borders against undocumented immigrants, localities are taking matters into their hands: Twenty-seven states have passed laws declaring English to be their official language, four others are considering them, and more than a dozen towns and cities this year have either approved or are debating similar measures that seek to curtail bilingualism in official government documents and programs.

Even more are coupling the English-only proposals with measures to block illegal immigrants from access to housing, jobs and education. More than 30 municipalities like Farmers Branch have passed or are considering such laws, according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors curbs on immigration. Carpentersville in suburban Chicago is one of them.

Landlords and employers

The measures typically require landlords and employers to verify the legal status of every applicant for an apartment or a job or face stiff fines.

“Landlords and employers are the ones that are profiting as a result of illegal immigration,” said Ira Mehlman, a federation spokesman. “Then those landlords and employers are committing everybody else in those communities to pay for education and health care and they are subjecting neighbors to houses that are filled with 20 and 30 people sometimes.”

Many Hispanic leaders, however, perceive racism behind the new laws and foresee the backlash against undocumented immigrants spreading to Hispanic Americans, the nation's largest minority group.

“There is a very anti-immigrant sentiment attached to the English-only movement,” said John Trasvina, interim president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “In a lot of the communities where this has come up, there is a tremendous amount of ill will that is raised by these ordinances.”

Others fear a surge of racial profiling by landlords and employers, who may simply avoid dealing with any Spanish-speaking applicant rather than risk the penalties associated with illegal immigrants.

“Am I going to have to prove my citizenship to everyone just because I am Hispanic?” said Hector Flores, a Dallas resident and former president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “What kind of America is this?”

Yet leaders of U.S. English Inc., a group founded in 1983 to lobby for “official English” laws, say they are not motivated by racism, and they lament that their ideas are now being combined with punitive measures targeting illegal immigrants.

“It is troubling, because it's usually the illegal immigration part that pulls down the whole argument,” said Rob Toonkel, spokesman for the group.

Rather, Toonkel said, English-only laws are intended to encourage immigrants from all countries to quickly learn English and not rely on bilingual crutches–and the laws typically contain provisions for governments to continue to provide essential emergency and legal services in multiple languages.

“If you go into a government office and they say, `Here are some things in Spanish,' it's sending a very strong message to you that you don't have to learn English,” Toonkel said. “It's not what the government should be doing.”

Hispanic leaders say such laws are unnecessary because most immigrants understand they must master English to prosper in America. Moreover, they say, research shows that by the third generation, most children of immigrant families speak only English.

`You're not welcome'

Back in Farmers Branch, where 37 percent of the town's 26,487 residents are Hispanic, O'Hare sounds less concerned with encouraging Spanish speakers to learn English than with discouraging illegal immigrants from settling in town.

“English-only is one of the ways you can keep illegals from coming into your city and let them know `You're not welcome here,'” O'Hare said.

Other Farmers Branch leaders, however, don't see a need for O'Hare's plan.

Mayor Bob Phelps said that, contrary to O'Hare's assertions, crime is actually down, local schools are improving and property values have appreciated modestly. But because of the negative publicity over the proposed crackdown on illegal immigrants, Phelps said, at least one major corporation that was planning to locate its headquarters in Farmers Branch has changed its mind.

“This has created a lot of ill feelings,” said Phelps. “We have no way of knowing who is legal or illegal. I know there are illegals here, but there's a lot of legals here too. You can't put the same tag on everybody.”

But O'Hare, a personal injury lawyer, is undeterred–even as he advertises his legal services to Spanish-speakers with a “Se Habla Espanol” tagline.

“I don't see that as a conflict,” O'Hare said. “There are people who are here legally that are more comfortable speaking Spanish. As long as we have somebody who can speak to them in Spanish, if that makes them more likely to come here, then I don't see what's wrong with that.”