Battling a late start and minimal fund-raising prospects, a coalition of Asian, Latin and other ethnic and civil-liberties organizations on Wednesday kicked off a campaign against Proposition 63, the November ballot initiative that would declare English the official language of California.

Californians United Committee Against Proposition 63 claims that the broadly written initiative is a smoke screen for anti-immigration policies and that it would slow the assimilation of immigrants rather than speed it.

To aid the opponents, Democratic legislative leaders Wednesday announced formation of a political action committee to raise funds and said they will support a $1.1-million legislative proposal to attack the problem of illiteracy and poor English language skill.

The legislation, authored by state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), is intended to blunt a key argument of supporters of Proposition 63, who contend that the English-only constitutional amendment would encourage immigrants to learn English more quickly.

The California English Campaign, the group spearheading the proposition, has denied charges that the initiative would slash basic government services such as bilingual education, court translators and even such long-accepted business practices as bilingual restaurant menus and advertising signs.

However, in an interview Wednesday, campaign chairman Stanley Diamond said he hopes the initiative will lead to a court challenge that finds bilingual education, the process of teaching immigrant schoolchildren in their native language, unconstitutional.

“We do not want the children taught in any other language except English, with the exception of a child who may be overly shy, and then a teacher may want to help him over certain obstacles when necessary,” Diamond said.

Former U.S. Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R-Calif.), long a national leader in the English-only movement and honorary chairman of Diamond’s campaign, said he does not agree with Diamond, although he said he would like to see bilingual education restricted so that it is used less frequently and traditional instruction in English as a second language used more.

Proposition 63 says that the Legislature “shall take all steps necessary to ensure that the role of English as the common language of the State of California is preserved and enhanced,” and shall “make no law which diminishes or ignores the role of English.”

In an attempt to quell opponents’ fears, the initiative also declares that nothing done in the name of advancing the use of English “shall supersede any of the rights guaranteed” by the state Constitution.

However, the vagueness of the wording and the tone of arguments already generated by similar campaigns in the Ventura County city of Fillmore and the San Gabriel Valley city of Monterey Park ensure that the battle over Proposition 63 will be peppered by emotional rhetoric and fear-tinged predictions.

At a press conference in Los Angeles on Wednesday, opponents warned that even if the courts uphold California’s present linguistic diversity by ruling against Proposition 63, the years-long legal struggle would create racial tension, intimidating and further isolating non-English-speaking residents.

Leaders of Diamond’s group “are anti-minority, anti-immigration and anti-foreign language,” charged Irvin R. Lai, national president of the Chinese-American Citizens Alliance.

‘Like Poisonous Snake’

The measure may sound patriotic, but “underneath, it is like a poisonous snake, full of venom that will open up bitterness through the United States,” Lai said.

Diamond called the allegations “unconscionable lies” and said that public health, safety and criminal justice services would not be affected by the proposition.

Diamond, a retired military reserve officer from San Francisco, is a former aide to Hayakawa. In 1984, Diamond led a successful campaign for Proposition 38, an advisory measure endorsing the abolition of bilingual voting materials in California. More than 70% of the state’s voters approved it.

Diamond said he is counting on those same voters to side with him in November, and David Hamlin, Southern California director of public affairs for the American Civil Liberties Union, acknowledged that those who fear the English-only movement should have begun mobilizing as soon as Proposition 38 was passed.

‘Meet Them Head On’

Hamlin said it is unclear whether foes of Proposition 63 will be able to raise enough money to afford even a modest campaign of television commercials. Diamond said that he, too, anticipates a modestly financed campaign, but vowed that if his opponents play “dirty tricks” by repeating Wednesday’s charges, “we will meet them head on” with an escalated media blitz.

In a Sacramento press conference, Torres said his literacy bill will attempt to deal with the language problem faced by about 4 million illiterate Californians.

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