Tennessee: Fight over English-only bill rages in Nashville

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Apr 1 13:03:44 UTC 2007

March 25, 2007, 11:39AM

Fight over English-only bill rages in Nashville

Mayor keeps bill off the books, saying it's at odds with civic image

Special To The Chronicle

A recent City Council bill requiring Nashville to conduct business solely
in English was quickly trumped by the mayor's veto. But the free-for-all
continues, haunting tourism and business officials who fear it will
tarnish the city's Southern image. "We are the friendliest city in
America," said Mayor Bill Purcell, who's spending the last of eight years
in office. "It is a part of who and what we are. We encourage people to
come for the weekend, a week or the rest of their lives. And this law was
directly contrary to that."

Councilman Eric Crafton said his bill would force non-English speakers to
learn the language faster. He acknowledges that Nashville already conducts
business in English but invokes the illegal immigration shadow by saying
that the policy could change, because the U.S. government hasn't halted
the flow of undocumented workers. The magnifying glass of "English only"
has heated other communities in Texas and the rest of the nation but none
as large as Nashville, a tourist-driven city with a metropolitan
population of 1.4 million.

Reaction to immigration

Both sides in the bitter fight agree on just two things: Frustration over
illegal immigration from Spanish-speaking countries is behind the support
for the bill and the bill wouldn't have done a thing about that anyway.
Regardless, local bloggers now vent over illegal immigration in vitriolic
and emotional Internet posts about the bill. Much of it focuses on
preserving a way of life. With his veto, the mayor of the nation's country
music capital was "caving in to those who wish to change our state instead
of those who wish to preserve it!" read a post on the Tennesseans for
Responsible Immigration Policies Web site. "We have to take back our
community and our country somewhere," a resident of nearby Hermitage told
a local newspaper.

Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce has called the bill "an official policy
by Nashville against inclusiveness." But the organization also felt the
need to add that it's firmly against illegal immigration. "There's a lot
of anti-immigrant sentiment, and people are frustrated, justifiably so,
because the federal government has failed to act," said lawyer Gregg
Ramos, a Hispanic and an ardent foe of the bill. "The federal government
has been woefully inadequate. People are venting their frustrations in
whatever way they can." The local Roman Catholic bishop, David R. Choby,
stood in support with Purcell as he made the veto announcement. "The
characteristics of kindness, for which this city has developed a national
recognition, can also be called Christian charity," he said.

Aimed at Hispanics

The factor unmentioned in the bill is the Spanish-speaking immigrants,
whose growing presence across the South during this decade has triggered
cultural change and unease. Nashville is home to the nation's largest
Kurdish community and large numbers of immigrants from Southeast Asia and
Africa, but the controversy has ignored them in comparison. In recent
years, Nashville's immigrant population has swelled, drawn by service
industry and construction growth and other parts of a healthy economy. As
of 2000, about 29,000 residents, or 5 percent of the total, were Hispanic,
and a language other than English was spoken in one in 10 Nashville homes,
according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The mayor is careful to frame the
argument by saying residents shouldn't fear that he'll speak Lithuanian on
television or that Public Works will answer pothole questions in German.

Purcell is clear with his disdain that Hispanic immigration is the real
catalyst, mentioning Wal-Mart's recent decision to add Spanish signs to
its stores. The school system recently launched a TV spot in Spanish that
describes school programs and last year added a Hispanic family outreach
coordinator. "There have been laws like this attempted and passed in lots
of different places, and none of them go to the issue that's bothering
them," he said. Purcell, a careful politician who's chosen to make this
his first major veto, flips his business card onto his desk in
exasperation. On the front his name and number are in English; on the
back, in Japanese. "My business card would have been illegal," he said.
"Why is my card in English and Japanese? It's not because I speak
Japanese. It's because we are the most successful recruiter of Japanese
business and investment of any city off the West Coast of America. We
greet Japanese visitors in Japanese at the airport. This law would have
said that was illegal. And that's wrong in every way."

Council sponsors couldn't gather the votes needed to overturn Purcell's
veto in mid-February, though. One of their next steps is to petition to
put the issue on the ballot in 2008. Nolan said angry voters may well pass
an English law. " ... My sense is there's a lot of frustration in the
general community, and that would be reflected in the vote," he said.



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