WOODRUFF: You wouldn’t think that making English an official language would create much of a stir. But on closer examination, it turns out that the issue can be highly politically controversial. Last November, voters in California passed Proposition 63, a state constitutional amendment adding California to the list of states that have declared English their official language. As other states looked to California’s example, they find that the vague wording of the state’s law have made it difficult to implement. We will hear a debate on the issue, but first we have a report from Spencer Michels of Public Station KQED, in San Francisco.
SPENCER MICHELS: Transactions as simple as ordering lunch can be a chore in a country where you don’t speak the language. But this Chinese restaurant is in California, U. S. Home to dozens of immigrant groups and their native tongues, San Francisco is a patchwork of ethnic neighborhoods. It was in this context, with California’s cities and towns, increasingly peopled by a flood of immigrants from Southeast Asia and Central America, that Proposition 63 passed in an astonishing landslide last fall. Practically every influential politician in the state had opposed Prop 63, as it was commonly called. When it passed, the new law inspired wisecracks. Politicians suggested that the Latin inscription in the State Legislature would have to be painted over. Perhaps San Francisco should change its name to St. Francis — or possibly St. Frank. And the dusty farm town of Manteca should adopt its Spanish name’s English translation — Lard. But anyone who thought that Spanish street signs and Chinese menus would disappear overnight has been disappointed. Citizens’ efforts to enforce the law have resulted in only a few serious actions. For example, three Los Angeles judges forbade their employees to speak Spanish on the job, even in casual conversations. They invoked Prop 63 in their support when the case went to court. A San Francisco attorney tried to stop the printing of legal forms in Spanish — forms like this one, designed to let a non English speaker know he or she is being sued. Such actions have outraged Hispanic journalist Jose Antonio Burciaga, who worked against the official English campaign. JOSE ANTONIO BURCIAGA, Hispanic journalist: What the official English movement is saying subtly is assimilate completely, become all American. We do not allow Spanish speakers. I can see a humorous aspect of this. For instance, there’s a little island in the San Francisco Bay area called Yerba Buena. They’ll change that to Good Grass or Good Wheat. There’s a town over here in Florida, Boca Raton — Rat’s Mouth, or Mouse’s Mouth? There’s towns all over the place. Back here in the San Francisco Bay area, there’s aa town called Los Banos — the Bathrooms. Altascadero — Mud Puddle, California.
MICHELS: But the author of Proposition 63 says it’s serious business. STANLEY DIAMOND, California English Campaign: From here on, we and everyone point to the Constitution of the State of California — what’s the constitution say? The Constitution says English is the official language of California. That means that message to everyone in the state is if you want to function, if you want to function in this state, you’d better be fluent and literate in English.
MICHELS: Stanley Diamond was a long time aide to former California Senator S. I. Hayakawa, a noted expert in linguistics and a staunch political conservative. Diamond ran the Prop 63 campaign on a shoestring, with a minuscule staff. Now, from its tiny office, his California English Campaign is pushing to enforce his interpretation of his law. While spreading the word to other states through the national group, U. S. English. But Prop 63’s passage has not stilled his opponents. Advocates for immigrants, Democratic politicians and civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, and MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund. One of Diamond’s most vocal critics is MALDEF attorney Francisco Garcia. FRANCISCO GARCIA, MALDEF: It’s really a question of — within the arena of immigrant rights. And what are the rights of new persons who come to the country who are going through the process of integrating, first as legal residents, then as citizens, and learning English. That’s why it’s so potentially explosive. Because it’s integrally involved with the question of immigrants.
MICHELS: In a scene from the 1985 film, Dim Sum, San Francisco director Wayne Wang illustrates that mastering English can be a good deal more difficult than mastering American history. It’s the language requirement that gives many people who apply for citizenship the most trouble. [film clip from Dim Sum]
MICHELS: Many immigrants become citizens without speaking English like a native, and many cities print ballots in languages such as Chinese and Spanish to assist them. Diamond’s campaign last fall stressed that declaring English the official language would stop the flow of bilingual material out of local voter registration offices. But the California Attorney General, one of Prop 63’s original opponents, recently refused to halt the practice, saying foreign language ballots do not detract from the official role of the English language. So Diamond is preparing a lawsuit against San Francisco and other cities with multilingual ballots. Jay Patterson, the San Francisco Registrar of Voters, isn’t worried. JAY PATTERSON, San Francisco Voter Registrar: He obviously doesn’t have a leg to stand on. The proposition says absolutely nothing about bilingual ballots, and it doesn’t require us to do anything, it doesn’t prohibit us from doing anything.
MICHELS: But the vague wording of the law could cut either way for multilingual services. At San Francisco General Hospital, 15 fulltime interpreters and numerous bilingual staff members help up to 20% of the patients here on any given day. Before last fall’s election, opponents of Prop 63 warned that under its vague wording, interpreting staffs like these might vanish overnight, along with bilingual police, fire and other services. Stanley Diamond contends that no one will try to do away with health and safety services. Mr. DIAMOND: No services will be eliminated. None will be. That campaign of ACLU and other organizations supporting Hispanic, Japanese, Chinese — at least their leadership — planned campaign of deceit, a planned campaign of scare tactics, of fear tactics, and of unconscionable lies.
MICHELS: His opponents don’t believe it. Mr. GARCIA: Now that it’s passed, they’re going to take the most expansive view possible on this initiative. Our job in the perspective of protecting bilingual services, is to meet that challenge and to ensure that this initiative, its interpretation, is very narrow.
MICHELS: Democrats in the State Legislature were almost unanimously against Prop 63. Now they’re chipping away at the scope of the law. Measures have been introduced to exempt everyone but the state itself from the law’s provisions. Private citizens, businesses, cities and counties would be immune. Other Democratic proposals would preserve services, limit penalties for breaking the law, and prohibit courts from awarding money damages or lawyers fees to people who file suits under Prop 63. But the most volatile conflict is unquestionably over bilingual education. One in four California school children comes from a non English speaking home. In Southern California, that proportion is expected to double within a few years because of immigration. Bilingual programming is designed to help students keep up their school subjects in their native languages until they’ve learned enough English to join regular classes. Mr. GARCIA: Why should a child spend two or three years falling behind and not learning math, social science, geography and all those other things that English speaking kids are learning. It’s such a simple premise, I don’t see how anyone could be opposed to it.
MICHELS: But the California English Campaign and many Republican legislators say the program maintains foreign languages at the expense of English in violation of Prop 63. Although Republican Governor George Deukmeijian opposed Prop 63 before its passage, he also opposes the current bilingual education program. Last year he vetoed legislation to extend it. The program expires this year, and renewed efforts to extend it seem doomed. Stanley Diamond takes that as a victory. Mr. DIAMOND: For the first time in the history of this country, one ethnic community, the Hispanic, do want to retain their language and their culture. Their goal is a bilingual bicultural state with two official languages. Whether they want to go public with it or not, that is their goal. Mine is quite the opposite.
MICHELS: To Francisco Garcia, that smacks of racism. Mr. GARCIA: It’s ludicrous to suggest there’s a secret agenda to create a bilingual state or even a separatist movement among Latinos. It’s such a red herring. There’s no way that poor people in a Latino community are going to organize themselves and take over this state or this country. It’s so ridiculous I can’t even respond to that.
MICHELS: But English First, a national lobbying group, goes even further, claiming that many immigrants today actually refuse to learn English. And the language question has become popular with patriotic groups around the country, such as the American Legion. ART JARRETT, California American Legion: Yeah, I think there’s a tendency not to learn if you don’t have to. You just go back a few years. When our own people came to this country. A lot of them couldn’t speak English, and they figured out a way to learn the language.
MICHELS: Ironically, many scholars think the English language has never been as well established in America as it is today. Language historian Shirley Heath is a professor of English and linguistics at Stanford University. SHIRLEY HEATH, Stanford University: In reality, 96% of the households in the U. S. now speak English as the mother tongue. And that’s probably the highest figure at any point in history. MICHELS: Heath suggests that the visibility of Hispanics as a large and distinct group within the United States may simply make the rest of the public feel threatened. Ms. HEATH: And yet because of the fear of sounding xenophobic, or sounding as though we don’t like them — that is, as though we sort of want to put the burden on one particular group — the response here is to try to claim a positive response. Let’s all rally around English, rather than Let’s all rally against them.
MICHELS: No one has yet suggested that Mcdonald’s in San Francisco’s Chinatown be forced to dismantle its sign in Chinese. Although that may seem absurd in an area that derives its income and its charm from its foreign atmosphere, critics say that the new law invites just such a response. WOODRUFF: Joining us now to look at the impact and prospects of English Only Initiatives around the country are Linda Chavez, incoming President of U. S. English, formerly staff director of the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, and last year Republican candidate in Maryland’s senatorial race. And Antonia Hernandez, President of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has fought against English Only efforts in California and elsewhere around the country. She joins us from Los Angeles. Ms. Chavez, is that what you’re trying to do, get rid of the Chinese and McDonalds signs in Chinatown in San Francisco, change the name of towns around the city and that sort of thing? LINDA CHAVEZ, U. S. English: Absolutely not. What we’re trying to do is to protect our common language, which is the one unifying factor we have in this nation that is made up of diverse people from various immigrant backgrounds. WOODRUFF: And what does that mean, to preserve and have one common language? Ms. CHAVEZ: One of the reasons that the United States works, even though it is a multi ethnic, multi racial, multi religious society, is that we have had a common language that allows us to be one people. We have common institutions, political institutions. And that language allows anyone, whether they’re from German speaking background or Spanish speaking background, or an English speaking background, to be able to compete equally for all of the opportunities that this society provides. WOODRUFF: Ms. Hernandez, what’s wrong with that? After all, as Ms. Chavez says, English is our common language. What’s wrong with making it the official language? ANTONIA HERNANDEZ, MALDEF: I don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with making it the official language, it’s what goes behind it. And there are some misconceptions that have been accepted as truths. English has not been our common language. As Americans, what is common to us is our love of democracy. People came from Germany and from other parts of the world. In fact, in the Continental Congress, a lot of the (unintelligible) was published in German. So to say that it is a unifying movement — on the other hand, it’s a very divisive movement. WOODRUFF: What are you afraid of? What are you afraid is going to happen? Ms. HERNANDEZ: Well, the fear is that you’re imposing upon a group of people who are defenseless barriers to acculturation, to assimilation. And in fact, what’s happening is you’re going to have people who want to be part of this system outside the system. And let me give you an example. New Mexico has had bilingual ballots since 1912. And what you have there is that 35% of the Hispanic population participates and votes. We have 35% of the voters — elected officials. It’s the only state where we have Hispanic governors, and where we have had two Hispanic Senators to the U. S. Senate. WOODRUFF: Ms. Chavez, you heard what she said — that what you’re doing is divisive, people who want to be in the system are going to be forced to be outside the system. Ms. CHAVEZ: We are very much in favor of including people in this system, particularly new immigrants to this country, and immigrants who want to become United States citizens, who want to become part of our society. We think the way to do that is to teach them English. I have to differ with Ms. Hernandez’s point of view in terms of what has united us. Yes, a love of democracy has united us. But Senator McCloskey, Senator Sarbanes, Senator Inouye — if each of them spoke the languages of their parents, would be unable to communicate with each other on the floor of the United States Senate if English were not in fact the language of communication. WOODRUFF: But let me ask you about a comment, a quote we saw in that report from Mr. Diamond in California. He said at one point, people can’t function in this country unless they speak English fluently. He said that’s the way it ought to be. Do you believe that? Ms. CHAVEZ: I believe that you cannot avail yourself of all the opportunities in this society without speaking English fluently. And I think all you have to do is to look at immigrant studies, studies of immigrants in terms of their income and earnings. What you find is that after people have lived in the United States for a period of about 15 years, not only do they earn the same as native born Americans, but they actually surpass native born Americans in their earnings. The one thing that keeps them up until that point from being able to earn as much is their inability to speak English. Once they are able to overcome that barrier, they move on, and they move on and excel. WOODRUFF: Ms. Hernandez, what about that? Ms. HERNANDEZ: You know, that is rather ludicrous, to say that you have to be literate in the English language in order to participate in this society. Well, if that’s the fact, what has happened with the black community? And if in fact that’s what they want, why don’t they support legislation to have individual immigrants learn the English language? Presently, there are over 40,000 individuals in L. A. County, waiting to get into an English class. I don’t see proponents of making English the official language supporting our efforts to make this a reality. It seems that it is just punitive and divisive. WOODRUFF: What about that, Ms. Chavez? That you’re not attempting to help these people learn English? Ms. CHAVEZ: U. S. English this year will spend $650,000 in a program to try and teach English to adult immigrants who desperately want to learn the language. They know that that language is their key to opportunity. It is that opportunity that we are trying to open up to them. WOODRUFF: But what about the other charge that we saw in the report — that what you’re doing is try to dismantle bilingual education programs in this country? Ms. CHAVEZ: U. S. English has never been opposed to bilingual education as a method to instruct children in learning English. What we have opposed is certain kinds of bilingual programs that have been aimed more at maintaining the child’s native language and has not worked successfully to teach English quickly so the students could fit alongside their peers. One very important thing a lot of people don’t know is that we have seen a lot of integration in the school systems around the country over the last 20 years. The one group that is more segregated today than it was 20 years ago are Hispanic students. WOODRUFF: What about that, Ms. Hernandez? Ms. HERNANDEZ: That’s absolutely true. And it has to do with poverty, it has to do with the bad educational system. And we’re segregated because of poverty. It has nothing to do with our not wanting to learn the English language. And in fact, we very much realized and want to learn English. It is not though an exclusive thing. There is nothing wrong with proposing that we maintain another language. This country needs to speak other than just English. WOODRUFF: Ms. Chavez? Ms. CHAVEZ: Individuals are enriched by learning to speak more than one language. Our country will not be enriched if we become a multilingual society that is not united by the common bond of language. WOODRUFF: But isn’t it — I guess one of the other points again that came out of the report — some people believe that it’s discriminatory toward people who have just come to this country, who are trying to learn English, but cannot, simply cannot learn it in a very short period of time. Ms. CHAVEZ: First of all, we’re not requiring anyone to do anything. What we are doing by these measures is simply recognizing English as the official language. And we as a private organization are trying to help immigrants to learn the language of our country. WOODRUFF: Ms. Hernandez? Ms. HERNANDEZ: Well, if that were the case, then you wouldn’t have 63. Sixty three does not just declare English as the language. What it does is it gives every resident of the State of California the right to sue the state if in fact it does not enforce English as the official language. And the litigation that’s right now in the courts where local judges imposed an English only rule, even in casual conversation in Spanish, that is punitive. That does not promote unity. And these people were bilingual, fluent in English. Why is it that the English only movement is in this litigation? WOODRUFF: Ms. Chavez, just quickly. Thirteen states now have this kind of law. How many more states would you like to see adopt this? Ms. CHAVEZ: I’d like to see it become the law of the land. WOODRUFF: Do you think you’ll be able to do that? Ms. CHAVEZ: I think we’re going to be very successful. Whenever it’s put to a vote, to the people, they overwhelmingly support it. WOODRUFF: Ms. Hernandez, do you think that’s going to happen? Ms. HERNANDEZ: I think that the legislation might pass. Whether it will work, no it will not. WOODRUFF: All right. Well, we thank you both for being with us. Ms. Hernandez in Los Angeles, Ms. Chavez, thank you both.