english only in alabama

Dennis Baron debaron at NTX1.CSO.UIUC.EDU
Fri Jun 4 16:21:04 UTC 1999

>From today's NY Times

June 4, 1999   Don't Speak English? No Tax Break, Alabama Official Declares
By KEVIN SACK   HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- As a vibrant center for space and
technology research, this city in northern Alabama owes much of its
character to an immigrant, Wernher van Braun, the German rocket scientist
who helped create the Marshall Space Flight Center here after World War II.
Proud of its international heritage, the city Friday greets visitors with
flapping roadside banners that welcome newcomers in a variety of languages.
But in recent years, a number of Hispanic and Asian immigrants have found
that Huntsville's hospitality vanishes at the door of the Madison County tax
assessor, Wayland H. Cooley. Part of Cooley's job is to grant legally
authorized property tax breaks to residents who own and occupy their houses.
In several instances, according to a lawsuit scheduled for an initial
hearing next week, Cooley has denied those breaks to homeowners who cannot
speak English.  The plaintiffs -- a Dominican-born husband and wife who are
U.S. citizens and a South Korean-born widow who is a permanent U.S. resident
-- charge that Cooley has denied them the tax reductions because state law
requires applicants to take a simple oath swearing to the accuracy of
information about their property.  Cooley maintains, according to the
plaintiffs, other witnesses and his own testimony, that he cannot vouch for
the accuracy of such an oath if it is not taken in English, even if an
interpreter is present.  In some cases, Cooley, an 83-year-old Democrat who
has held his elective office for nearly 22 years, has been only too happy to
explain his rationale, according to evidence gathered for the trial.  "He
said that he had to watch out for people who were trying to come in from all
over the world and skin us on taxes," said Mary Catherine Graham, a
financial analyst for the FBI who testified in a deposition after
accompanying a native of Mexico to Cooley's office last September.  Becky
Turner, a real estate agent who offered to interpret for the Mexican, said
in an affidavit that Cooley told her, "They're coming over here and taking
what's ours."  The South has seen a surge in immigration from Asian and
Hispanic countries in the 1990s. The growth has created adjustment problems
across the region, particularly in small- and medium-sized cities that have
little experience with foreign cultures.  Excluding Texas and Florida, which
already had large numbers of Hispanic residents, the nine other Southern
states are expected to see their Latino population grow by 112 percent from
1990 to 2000, according to Census Bureau projections.  The Asian population
is projected to grow by 72 percent in those states, while the region's
population is expected to increase by 14 percent. By the end of the decade,
3.5 percent of the people in those states will be of Latin American or Asian
origin, compared with 2 percent in 1990.  In towns where large numbers of
immigrants have been lured by jobs in poultry plants and carpet mills, the
need for interpreters and English-language training has strained school
systems, courts, police departments and social service agencies.  Experts on
immigration say they have been pleasantly surprised at the relative rarity
of cases of blatant discrimination or violence against immigrants in the
South. But they have started to detect anti-immigrant sentiment in the
politics of some areas, and they say they fear there will be more bias of
the type alleged in the Huntsville case.  No trial date has been set in the
lawsuit against Cooley, but a circuit court judge will hear arguments next
week on Cooley's contention that the case should be thrown out on the
grounds that he did not violate the law and that he has immunity as a
government officer.  The plaintiffs claim that the tax assessor violated the
Constitution's equity protections for non-English speakers, and ask for both
compensatory and punitive damages.  In court papers, the lawyer for the
plaintiffs, Rhonda Brownstein, of the Southern Poverty Law Center in
Montgomery, Ala., charges that Cooley's "actual motive, his hatred of
foreigners, is nothing more than xenophobia and ethnic prejudice."  Speaking
with the help of interpreters in interviews in their homes Tuesday, the
plaintiffs, Byong Rye Ahn and Julio and Carmen de Paula Telleria, said they
felt demeaned by Cooley's treatment, which they described as spiteful and
sarcastic.  "I felt less than human when he attacked me," said Mrs. Ahn, 63,
a hospital housekeeper who came to the United States in 1985 and bought a
three-bedroom house the next year with her husband, who died in 1989.  Mrs.
de Paula said Cooley at one point gestured at the ground with his finger.
"He said, 'This is Alabama,' " she said. " 'Here you need to know English."'
Ms. Brownstein has calculated that Mrs. Ahn should be paying $278 in annual
property taxes rather than the $677 she is paying. The de Paulas, she said,
should be paying $209 instead of $659 annually.  Both Cooley and his lawyer,
Julian Butler, declined to comment on the case. A brief filed by Butler
states that Cooley's English-only policy is designed "to prevent potential
fraud." It also cites a 1990 state constitutional amendment declaring
English to be the state's official language.  Because Cooley provides all
taxpayers with equal services in English, Butler writes, his practice "does
not classify persons based on race, ethnicity or national origin."  Last
year, Ms. Brownstein's office conducted a survey that found that Madison
County, where 3.8 percent of 272,000 residents are Hispanic or Asian, is the
only county in Alabama that does not allow interpreters to assist applicants
for tax exemptions.  In addition, the state attorney general, Bill Pryor,
issued an opinion last year stating that the English-language provision of
the State Constitution does not restrict non-English speakers from claiming
tax exemptions on their property.  The de Paulas retired to Huntsville in
1995 after immigrating to New York City from the Dominican Republic in the
1960s. De Paula, 71, had worked as a solderer in a Ford assembly plant in
New Jersey. Mrs. de Paula, 59, had stitched brassieres in a factory in
Brooklyn, N.Y. Both gained citizenship in 1992 under a provision that allows
immigrants of a certain age and tenure in the country to be exempt from an
English-language exam and to take the civics exam in the language of their
choice.  In Alabama, the couple bought a modest brick house with three
bedrooms, a garage and an above-ground pool. They paid $54,000. "It felt
like tranquillity," de Paula said.  In 1996, accompanied by their son,
Ricardo, who is bilingual, the de Paulas, went to the tax assessor's office
to see that their new house was registered on the tax rolls as a residence
and to apply for the homestead tax exemption.  Residential property is
appraised for tax purposes at half the rate of commercial property, and the
homestead exemption grants an additional discount to those who own and
occupy their houses.  According to affidavits from all three de Paulas,
Cooley informed them that they could not take the oath to qualify for the
exemptions because they did not know English. He also told them, the de
Paulas said, that an interpreter could not be used and that exemptions could
not be granted to noncitizens.  Ricardo de Paula's affidavit says that he
told Cooley that his parents were citizens but that Cooley said it "doesn't
matter."  Several days later, a family friend, Rosa Almanza, called Cooley
to ask whether she could be their interpreter. Ms. Almanza said he refused.
"How do I know," she quoted Cooley as asking, "that what you are translating
is the truth?"

Dennis Baron, Head                               debaron at uiuc.edu
Department of English                         phone: 217-333-2390
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.                                      fax:217-333-4321
Urbana, Illinois 61801        http://www.english.uiuc.edu/baron

More information about the Ads-l mailing list