Iowa: Feelings mixed on "official language" issue

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Aug 1 13:42:07 UTC 2006

Local leaders: 'English' law isn't enough

By: Dana Larsen, Pilot Tribune Editor July 31, 2006

Congressman Steve King, representing increasingly diverse western Iowa,
testified on behalf of an English as the Officials Language bill before
the U.S. House Education and Workforce subcommittee this week.
King applauded the action he had led in the Iowa Statehouse toward such an
English Language bill in the Iowa Legislature, signed into law in 2002.
"The American people overwhelmingly support unifying this country through
our common bond of language and empowering immigrants to fully realize the
American dream," King testified.

Closer to home, feelings are a bit more mixed on the "official language"
issue." Storm Lake's state representative, and a veteran city council
member, said that they don't oppose a mandate for the government's
business to be done in English, but both note that this is no complete
answer to the issue of immigrant assimilation. "Steve is going to do what
Steve is going to do," said Iowa Representative Mary Lou Freeman, a fellow
Republican who worked with King in the Iowa Legislature. Freeman said that
it is a given that newcomers need to learn English in order to be
successful in American society, but she said she is also aware that
mandating "English only" will be seen by some as being less than welcoming
to diversity. "There's no doubt in my mind that it will be seen as a mixed
message," she said. Freeman does not criticize King on that issue. "I
understand that his constituency seems to support that message."

Personally, Freeman said she feels English education must be stressed in
the process. In Iowa, the Legislature backed up its English law by
extending funding for local efforts to teach immigrants English as a
second language. "It was the right thing to do." The feds could do the
same if they are willing to, she says. "I guess I'm rather tolerant. I've
traveled in other countries, and I realize how difficult it can be for
people not to understand," she said. "The fact is that most of the
Hispanic immigrants living here, if they had their choice, would rather be
back home living with their extended families. They feel lonely, and
possibly somewhat isolated." Legislation alone won't reach such people,
Freeman feels. "I would rather we look at more opportunities for education
in the communities than penalizing people for not understanding English."
She also feels it may be naive for people to think that an official
language law would transform the voices being heard in diverse communities
like Storm Lake, which happens to be Congressman King's hometown. Freeman
said she played the organ as a teenager for a church that still conducted
services in the Swedish language. "Elderly couples would come early just
to listen. After all those years, they still were clinging to their native
language somewhat, and the same was true for Germans and other immigrant
groups here. People around here should realize that changes in language do
not come quickly. Unfortunately, the generation of European immigrants
that remembers that fact first-hand is now pretty much gone. Still, we
should know as we deal with immigrants today that for an awful lot of us,
it took years for our own ancestors to make this transition."

Any English language legislation must be designed to help, not to oppose
the native languages of the newcomers, she said. "I firmly believe that
they can and should retain their cultures. And that we should come to
enjoy and appreciate those cultures just as much as we have all the others
we have come to know and love within America," Freeman said. While
bilingual voting rights and a border wall have been among the issues King
has been vocal for, Freeman isn't quick to climb on those bandwagons with
her fellow Republican. "Quite frankly, I don't think it would be wrong to
have instructions available on a ballot in Spanish, or to try to have
volunteers available at some precincts to interpret if there is enough
interest to show that it is needed," she said of the voting rights debate.
"I don't think the whole ballot would need to be done, because basically
it is a list of names that will be the same regardless of the language it
is typed in. The problem if you start doing whole ballots and things like
that in Spanish is that there are a lot of other immigrant groups too, and
even in a town like Storm Lake, it would be pretty hard to have a ballot
done up in every possible native dialect of the population." King's bill
to declare English as the official language, House Resolution 997, awaits
approval by the committee to make it to the floor of the House for
consideration. King cites Census figures showing that almost 12 million
Americans are "linguistically isolated, up 54 percent from 1990 to 2000.
About one in every 25 homes in the country have no one who speaks English
well. King said that the immigrants who are not learning English earn
considerably less pay than those who do. He said his bill would not
require English to be spoken, but would mandate that all of the
government's business be conducted in English. Exceptions could be made
for emergency medicine and safety services, judicial proceedings, foreign
language instruction and tourism promotion. King said that one current
poll indicates that 84 percent of Americans and 77 percent of Hispanics
want English to be named the official language of U.S. government
operations. At the local level, Storm Lake City Council member Jim Treat
says he understands where King is coming from in his English as the
Official Language campaign, but added that such legislation cannot and
should not keep local communities from choosing to make the accommodations
necessary to communicate with newcomers. "Storm Lake has been hospitable
in that sense, from city hall to a lot of other local entities. I think
you could say we have put out the welcome mat, and I think that has been
the right thing to do," Treat said. Among those efforts, the city hired
two community service officers for the police department who can speak in
Spanish and Lao, respectively. City Hall's doors are stenciled in three
languages. "I do support the Congressman, and personally, I don't think
the English bill would be discriminatory. I don't think it will stop us at
the communities level from reaching out however we need to, including
accommodations for elections," Treat said. King has at times chosen
unfortunate words, Treat said, especially in joking about the appearance
of a respected elderly journalist recently.

"A lot of other people have said some terrible things, often about our own
president, and nobody calls them to task," Treat adds. "One thing I can
say about Steve King - like him or dislike him, he is a man of his
convictions and all of the criticism doesn't seem to slow him down at
all." Treat said he sees a great need to unify the nation, in language and
other issues, such as support of the military. "We are going to have to
eliminate some of the infighting if we are to be successful in our efforts
at home and around the world," he said. The language bill may expedite
governmental business and be one step, he feels, but will not change
societal situations. "In all honesty, I haven't learned Spanish, so I
can't criticize [those who are slow to lean English]. People can speak the
language they choose and we aren't going to change that." Some parts of
the country are experiencing many more assimilation problems than Storm
Lake, he feels. "Imagine being in a school system that is trying to teach
people who speak in 40 different native languages. In Storm Lake, I
believe we have eight or nine different native languages currently, and we
have been fortunate to find the people who can help us out in assisting
people in learning English."

Storm Lake has never had a need or desire to attempt any local legislation
dictating language, and Treat sees no reason to consider any in the
future. "It has never crossed out minds. I have no qualms with people from
around the world coming in," he said. "Immigration is a complex subject to
tackle, but I did just read of a city in New Jersey that got tired of
waiting for a federal immigration policy and decided to adopt their own
local immigration law." Regardless of whether King's English legislation
sails or fails, Treat said the work to assimilate newcomers not just as
residents, but as Americans, cannot stop there. "We should remember the
words of Martin Luther King," he said. "He longed for the time when every
human being would be judged by their character, not the color of their
skin. I think we still need to be working towards that."

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