Spanish-Only Government In Texas Town

Grant Barrett gbarrett at AMERICANDIALECT.ORG
Sat Aug 14 12:18:02 UTC 1999


Paris, Saturday, August 14, 1999
Spanish Becomes the Language of Government in a Texas Town
By Claudia Kolker Los Angeles Times Service
EL CENIZO, Texas  - As ceiling fans puffed at the big U.S. flag on the community center wall, the dozen residents at the city council meeting here Thursday poised hands over hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance.
Then they began their town's modestly historic council meeting, possibly the first in the United States to be conducted by city ordinance in Spanish.

Far-flung, sun-battered and mostly poor, this former colonia of trailers and frail bungalows found itself in the middle of a political vortex two weeks after enacting a pair of surprising new laws.

Under one ordinance, all city government business must take place in Spanish. And under the other, city employees - all six of them - are forbidden to assist the U.S. Border Patrol in catching undocumented immigrants. If they do so, they risk being fired.'

In a town of 7,500 where virtually every resident is an immigrant, married to an immigrant, or the child of immigrants, the laws reflect not so much a rejection of American culture but acknowledgment of a border culture dominated by Spanish and haunted by Border Patrol search vehicles.

Far from springing from any broad ideology, in fact, the motivation for the two laws was utterly local, said Mayor Rafael Rodriguez. ''About 75 percent of the people at meetings here only speak Spanish,'' he said.

Political rivals of city council members had accused them of turning in undocumented residents to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS, and the new law will help dispel such accusations, Mr. Rodriguez added.
So far, residents of this depressed town of laborers and factory workers 10 miles (16 kilometers) down the Rio Grande River from Laredo, Texas, have praised the two ordinances.

''I'm for it,'' said Lupe Rojas, squinting in the sunlight alongside her 10-year-old son. ''Because in English, well - no! We don't understand it.''

But while several Latino advocacy groups praised the effect of the language ordinance in tailoring city services to constituents, the law drew the ire of immigration-reform activists.

''This is not a good idea,'' said Tim Schultze, a spokesman for U.S. English in Washington, a group devoted to making English the official language of the United States. ''We have long predicted that this sort of thing would happen in our country. And our opponents have said, 'You're insane. You're exaggerating. It will never happen.'''

But Lydia Camarillo, executive director of the San Antonio, Texas-based Southwest Voter Education Registration Project, called the statute sensible. ''It appears that these folks clearly understand these communities do not speak English and this is a way of providing a service,'' she said.

Under the ordinance, city council sessions and other official business will be conducted in Spanish, and English translations will be made available upon request within 48 hours.

While the language ordinance provokes strong debate, the ''safe haven'' rule apparently violates federal law, according to the INS. Safe haven ordinances in cities across the country have attempted to keep municipal employees from acting as immigration enforcers, but such measures, unlike the one here, typically include the proviso that they be enforced within the limits of law.

Immigration law forbids any federal, state or local government official from restricting government entities in giving or getting immigration information, said Bill Strassberger, an INS spokesman in Los Angeles. However, he added, the INS had no plans to challenge the El Cenizo law. ''Other types of criminal activity are our priority,'' he said.

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