LOWELL, Mass.—-This riverfront city of old textile mills and factories has always drawn immigrants by the thousands. First there were the Irish and the Italians, then the Greeks and Poles. Most recently, Latin Americans and Southeast Asians have migrated here for jobs.

Relations among the various groups have not always been smooth, and a nonbinding measure on Tuesday’s ballot that would declare English the city’s official language has produced an ugly division between those who back it and those who say it could create a tool of oppression if it was re-introduced as a binding measure.

Mayor Richard P. Howe says the issue has needlessly brought racial and ethnic animosity to the surface in a relatively peaceful period. But the measure’s sponsor, George D. Kouloheras, a member of the School Committee, says he does not want to inflict pain on any ethnic group but simply wants to protect a language ”under attack.”

Nearly 40 percent of Lowell’s 100,000 residents are Asian or Hispanic and no one disputes the value of conducting most of the city’s affairs in English. But some worry that the move might be a first step toward policies that discriminate against people who cannot speak English, or cannot speak it well.

Divisive, a Cambodian Says

”I feel it is a divisive community strategy,” said Boran Reth, president of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association here, who came to the United States in 1981 after his family was killed in the Cambodian civil war. ”The Cambodian community feels that they are not welcome in this city, and the purpose of this seems to be to punish the people who cannot speak English or speak English with accents.”

Mr. Kouloheras, whose parents emigrated from Greece at the turn of the 20th century, has joined the Washington-based organization U.S. English, which promotes the use of English in government.

”We have sort of a laissez-faire attitude that English is our language,” Mr. Kouloheras said, ”and it is best to establish some principles that will guide the courts and policymakers in the future. It’s best to take benign action now before the problem reaches a crisis. The minority language population continues to grow.”

”These measures are always so vague,” said Martha Jimenez, a staff attorney and policy analyst for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund in Washington, ”and no one is really sure what they mean. But the pattern has been for people to interpret them on their own, and it leads to an increase in private discrimination. People try not to be overtly racist, because they don’t want to be labeled, so to a great extent language can be used as a proxy for that.”

Trouble Where There Wasn’t Any

The referendum, coming when Lowell and much of Massachusetts are in an economic slowdown, seems to have prompted ill will toward recent immigrants. Lowell now has 25,000 Cambodians here and several hundred Vietnamese, Thai and Laotian families.

”This has brought out the anger and resentment and frustration that hadn’t seemed to be a problem recently,” Mayor Howe said. ”People are calling up radio talk shows to express their objections to Southeast Asians in the city. We were well on our way to making this system work when along comes George,” a reference to Mr. Kouloheras.

Desegregation of Lowell’s schools, begun in 1987, is now all but complete, with busing to classrooms beyond students’ neighborhoods for racial balance. The plan had been hotly disputed. Shortly after it went into effect a young Cambodian boy, fighting with another boy as both waited for a bus, was pushed into a canal and drowned.

Most Asians came here in the last five years, and that has has strained on services, especially the school system. Last year the city spent $10 million of its $51 million budget on bilingual education and busing to keep the schools integrated.

The Influx of Children

About 3,400 of the 13,000 students are Asian, and 2,000 are Hispanic. Last year, Mayor Howe said, Asian children arrived at a rate of 30 to 50 a week, forcing the school system to rent extra classrooms and hire bilingual teachers. Many Cambodian children spent their earliest years in Thai refugee camps and came here with no formal education, Mr. Boran Reth said.

The superintendent of schools, Henry J. Mroz, said he favored extra Federal aid to help cover the costs of educating children who came with no English. ”It’s all right to welcome people in,” he said, ”but you have to provide for them.”

Mr. Mroz said he expected the referendum to win approval from most voters. The school committee endorsed it last week. ”It’s not to divide people,” Mr. Kouloheras said. ”It’s to unite people. E pluribus unum.”

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