Language Policy in Wisconsin

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Jul 19 18:37:00 UTC 2002

New York Times,  July 19, 2002

Divided by a Call for a Common Language


     GREEN BAY, Wis., July 18 One board member called the resolution the
"least significant document" to cross his desk in a decade on the Brown
County Board of Supervisors. Yet Nancy Nusbaum, the county executive, said
it would most likely prompt her first veto in 15 years. The resolution,
making English the official language of county government here, has no
practical impact the county translates documents and provides interpreters
only when required by federal law. But the symbolic effects have already
torn through this fast-changing city in weeks of angry debate.

"Either you just don't get it, or you just don't care," Kevin Kuehn, a
supervisor who opposed the resolution, told his colleagues before the
bitterly divided board voted 17 to 8 on Wednesday night in favor of the
resolution.  "Is it that you don't understand? Is it that you have fear?
Or is it a racist act? Because I don't understand what else it can be." In
passing the resolution, which also calls on the state and federal
governments to pay for English classes for immigrants, Brown County joins
at least 11 other Wisconsin counties, and 27 states, that have adopted
English as their official language. Though the movement has gained
strength in recent years as part of a backlash against growing numbers of
immigrants, it has taken on particular force since Sept. 11, fueled by
patriotic fervor and fears about an uncertain economy.

"English has been the most important unifier of our country for the last
200 years it's a symbol of being American, right up there with the flag,
`The Star Spangled Banner,' the Pledge of Allegiance," said Valerie
Rheinstein, a spokeswoman for U.S. English, a Washington group that
advocates such resolutions.  "You're free to come here and you're free to
make a life for yourself, but you're also free to leave," Ms. Rheinstein
added. "You're coming here to be an American. Being an American means
you're going to have to speak English."

Here in Green Bay, the battle over the English resolution has exposed the
discomfort that quietly accompanied the shift from a largely homogenous
town united in devotion to the Packers football team to a city where Hmong
farmers pick cilantro and onions in community gardens and Mexican
flags flap from cars on the Cinco de Mayo holiday.

According to the 2000 census, 7 percent of Green Bay's 102,313 residents,
and 4 percent of Brown County's 226,778, are foreign born, up from 2
percent of the city and 1 percent of the county in 1990. Two decades ago,
Green Bay was 97 percent white; now it is 85 percent. The county is home
to 5,000 Asians and 9,000 Hispanics. Amid the apartment buildings along
Imperial Lane, near the Packerland meat processing plant where some 70
percent of the workers are immigrants, a barrio has sprouted, with signs
marking tenant parking in English and in Spanish. In the basement of the
First Presbyterian Church, where Hmong girls learn traditional dances for
New Year's, twin yellow posters in two languages announce free

When Isaias Alvarez opened La Guadalupana, a Mexican grocery, three years
ago, he had to drive to Chicago weekly to stock his shelves with flax
seed, epazote and chile morita. Now, with about 10 bodegas in town,
delivery trucks arrive every Thursday with those spices, along with
Spanish-labeled products like Nestl's La Lechera, a form of sweetened
condensed milk, and Knorr's Caldo de Tomate, tomato bouillon. Karl
Txajkaug Thoj, director of the Hmong Association of Green Bay, sees the
resolution as an unwelcome mat that says to his community, "You're not
important, forget about your culture, forget about being different." After
Mr. Thoj protested the measure at a public hearing, he received an
anonymous letter. "Yes, you people are not welcome in Green Bay," it said.
"Green Bay was nice until you freeloaders came. You multiplied like
animals and want everything for nothing."

Noting that the 26 members of the county board are all white, a columnist
in The Green Bay Press-Gazette likened the resolution to apartheid. Green
Bay's mayor and the Chamber of Commerce have joined nuns and rabbis in
opposing it. In a series of contentious public hearings over the past two
months, residents favoring the resolution expressed concern that the
county would have to spend money translating documents and providing
interpreters as the community continued to diversify. Invoking the
Americanization of their European ancestors, they said the resolution
would unite the community, not divide it.

"If I cannot exchange ideas with you, we're already divided," Mary
Verheyen told the board at a June meeting. "We need one thing to unite us.
Let it be we can understand each other." But the measure's opponents make
the same point. May Xiong, whose family were the first Hmong to arrive in
the area in 1976, and who now owns an Asian grocery where Hmong videos and
shaman's incense sticks are for sale, recalled her years as a nurse
treating bleeding American soldiers in the Vietnam War.

"They do not speak any Lao," she said. "What would happen to their legs,
their arms, their eyes? They need a translator." On Wednesday night,
31-year-old Sean Ryan, who owns a fast-food restaurant, stood in a corner
of the crowded hearing room holding aloft three sarcastic signs. "Mi casa
NO es su casa," one read. Another attributed a quotation, "More conformity
is better for all of us," to Hitler and Brown County.

After several contentious meetings over two months, the supervisors
changed the title of the resolution from "Resident Responsibility Act" to
"Brown County Diversity Resolution," and tried to soften its language.
Proponents said it was aimed at unity. John VanderLeest, a supervisor who
voted for the resolution, said he hoped it would push people to learn
English more quickly, thus enabling them to find better jobs and become
citizens. Pat Collins, who sponsored the initiative, said that "the vast
majority of the middle of this county"  supported it and that calls from
constituents had been 9 to 1 in favor.

"When we pass it, the sun's going to rise in the morning, people will get
on with their lives," Mr. Collins said. "This county will have made a
statement. That's all it is."

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