Pennsylvania: Impractical 'English only' policy in Allentown

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu May 11 12:05:50 UTC 2006

>>From the Allentown (PA) Morning Call

May 10, 2006
An unusual journey for impractical 'English only' policy in Allentown

In 1992, the late Emma Tropiano, a controversial city councilwoman who
evoked either wholehearted support or angry opposition, introduced a
resolution: ''English shall be the official language of the City of
Allentown and the language in which City business shall be conducted,
unless otherwise required by applicable state and/or federal law or
regulation.'' After local protests, embarrassing national publicity and
two years of debate, City Council approved an English-only bill in 1994.
The language was included in the city's Home Rule Charter in 1995 by the
charter study commission, and ratified by voters in 1996.

On Monday, a proposal by City Councilman Tony Phillips an African American
man who considered Mrs. Tropiano, an Italian, a political role model was
tabled indefinitely by Council's Legal and Legislative Affairs Committee.
Mr. Phillips had proposed replacing his role model's language with this:
''Allentown is a City that celebrates the diversity of its residents.''
Councilman Michael D'Amore had co-sponsored the measure, but withdrew his
support Monday and cast the deciding vote, with council committee Chairman
Martin Velazquez III, 2-1. Mr. Phillips has said he sought to make the
city more inclusive. But Mr.  D'Amore said Monday he had come to the
conclusion that opponents of the change were right about two things.

Having an ''official'' language never stops Allentown officials from
translating important information into other languages anyway, when
communication and customer service are of the essence, including Spanish
versions of neighborhood crime-watch bulletins. The city's Latino
population more than doubled between two Census surveys, from 12,274 in
1990 to 26,058 in 2000. Putting the change before Allentown voters in
November would be highly divisive at a time when Americans are engaged in
intense debates about White House and Capitol Hill proposals for
immigration reform.

Further, the city has more pressing concerns. Council must show leadership
in support of the important EMS tax in next week's Primary Election.
Pension negotiations with the police are at a critical stage, and vital to
the financial health of a city looking to broaden its sources of revenue
after three consecutive years of deficits. The English-language measure
has traveled a long and strange journey, including most recently Mr.
Phillips' attempt to reverse the single measure that most defined his
government role model, Mrs. Tropiano.  Several Latino leaders asked City
Council to not risk divisiveness with change at this time, even though the
proposed wording lifted up diversity and openness. It ultimately posed the
question of why the English-only language, as ineffective as it is, is in
the charter at all.

There will still be those who ask, with irritation, ''Why won't newcomers
learn English?'' But applicants for English as a Second Language, here in
the Valley and nationwide, outnumber class openings and the supply of
tutors. Also, National Institute for Literacy studies cite four primary
barriers to participation in classes: time, cost, child care and
transportation. It's a complex situation, but one that people are trying
to cope with  regardless of what government documents might say.

Copyright  2006, The Morning Call

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