Oklahoma: Misguided English-only bill probably headed for a public vote

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Feb 23 17:39:57 UTC 2009

Ay, caramba, it's back
Misguided English-only bill probably headed for a public vote

By MIKE JONES Associate Editor
Published: 2/22/2009  2:26 AM
Last Modified: 2/22/2009  2:53 AM

Some bad ideas simply won't go away. Such is the case with
English-only legislation. Again this year a bill is making its way
through the Oklahoma House. There is corresponding legislation in the
Senate and it looks more likely than ever that the proposal will end
up before the voting public. Last May, the Senate effectively killed a
similar measure by sending it to committee. Last week, the House Rules
Committee passed House Joint Resolution 1042 and sent it to the House
floor for a vote. A companion proposal, House Bill 2252, would
eliminate the requirement that driver's license tests be given in
Spanish. Another bad idea.

There are too many reasons given that these two misguided laws be
passed, so I'll address only a few.

1. English as the official language will save lots of money.

Really? How much? Maybe $20,000 or so? Is the state actually losing a
lot of money on interpreters or additional signage? Not really.

2. Forcing people to learn English will bring the state in line with
federal policy that encourages learning English in order to boost
immigrants' earning power.

If there is federal policy, why do we need a state law saying the same
thing? Let's let the feds handle it as they are supposed to.

3. English is the global language.

True. And it likely will remain so for a long time. So, many countries
already speak English as a second language or encourage that English
be learned. But let's not be so pretentious that we just assume that
everyone should speak English. The United States is one of the few
countries that doesn't encourage or demand that a second language be

To think that making a law automatically will make everyone speak
English is foolish. Even if the law is passed it would take a
monumental educational effort and years to get it done. After all, how
many of our state legislators speak say, Spanish? English is a
difficult language to master (i.e. read, read, red).

4. Our Native Americans learned English and, according to English-only
supporters, were glad to do so.

Ask a few Indians about their grandfathers' and grandmothers'
experience with learning the English language and how their own native
languages were almost wiped from existence. Not quite the same rosy
picture painted by English-only proponents. HJR 1042 contains
exemptions for Indian languages. Well, if we're going to do this
right, then remove the exemption for Indian languages. After all, fair
is fair. The Indian language exemption is an insulting sop to the
tribes to keep them out of the fray.

5. If they can't speak English, they can't read road signs.

Which road signs might that be? Speed Limit 40? I-44 East? I-35 South?
Oklahoma City 90 Miles? How about Stop or Yield? Yale Avenue Exit? Or
No Right Turn, which is usually accompanied by an arrow at 90 degrees
with a red circle and red slash through it (same goes for No Left
Turn)? If they're going to put enough information on a road sign that
it requires extensive reading, then I'm going to have some problems
also. There is no need for an English-only law. Second- and
third-generation immigrants speak English.

Refusing to offer driver's license tests in Spanish is dangerous. To
get a license you must show proof of insurance. If non-English
speaking immigrants cannot understand the test, they just won't take
it and therefore won't have to get any insurance. That only
exacerbates an existing problem. There are more than 400,000 driver's
tests given annually in Oklahoma and around 3,000 are given in
Spanish. That's not exactly breaking the bank.

According to the 2000 census (the next one isn't due until 2010),
English was spoken in 92.6 percent of Oklahoma households. In most, it
was the only language spoken. Census figures show that Spanish is the
second most spoken language in U.S. homes, but the report also showed
that in homes where some language other than English was the first
language, members of the household could speak English very well more
than half the time. That pretty much already makes it the official

In Tulsa alone there are 60 languages spoken, again according to the
census. Those languages range from Albanian to Hindi to Yoruba. The
majority of those immigrants came to the United States either for a
job or education. It is likely that most could already speak English.
Proponents claim that not having the English-only law would force the
state to print all government documents, tests, road signs and
whatever else in all 119 languages spoken in the state. To raise that
alarm is unfair and inaccurate.

Such a law isn't being proposed for humane or economic reasons. It is
being sought to punish Mexican immigrants, legal and illegal. It will
only drive a wedge further between an important, viable and legal
community and the rest of our state and make the growing illegal
immigrant problem worse. Is illegal immigration a problem for Oklahoma
and the country? Certainly. There needs to be a solution. Should
immigrants be able to speak English? Of course. But such laws as
proposed are not the answers.

The decision might soon be left up to the good people of Oklahoma, the
people whose ancestors were once immigrant outcasts — the Irish, the
Italians and many others — and those whose family history includes the
Indians who know as well as anyone the pain that hatred and mistrust
can cause. It likely will be up to these voters to say no to such
unnecessary and mean-spirited laws. I'm hoping they look to their
roots and do the right thing.

Again, I ask: What are we afraid of?

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