Initiative Seeks to Make English the Civil Tongue

Official Language Law Likely in California

Oakland—Despite bipartisan opposition from state officeholders, a grass-roots campaign to make English the official language of California seems close to victory, with far-reaching implications for the use of foreign languages in schools and polling places.

The official-English initiative, Proposition 63 on the November ballot, shows 70 percent support in the latest statewide poll. At the very least, specialists say, it could fill the courts with lawsuits against any program that would diminish the use of English.

At most, opponents say, eliminating bilingual ballots and election materials will confuse and discourage new citizens at a crucial moment in their assimilation into American culture, and forcing immigrant children into all-English classes too soon could cripple them academically.

But proponents point to the millions of immigrants of previous generations who learned to read and vote in English without government bilingual programs. The national organization promoting the campaign here and in other states, U.S. English, is among the fastest-growing citizens’ groups in the country, and its 200,000 members include 100,000 Californians. Their California English Campaign has defied the usual political rules by building a huge lead for Proposition 63 with no television or radio commercials and less than $ 1 million.

Much of the concern generated by the initiative stems from California’s inevitable demographic future. Hispanics and ethnic Asians represent about one-quarter of the state’s population, and the steady influx of newcomers from Latin America and Asia has led to predictions of a Hispanic-Asian majority by 2030.

Immigration has made a gradual but significant change in the look, taste and sound of daily life here. Shops offer foreign food, clothes and other wares no longer considered exotic but commonplace — and, in some cases, essential. But indecipherable accents on the telephone and foreign-language signs on stores have led many long-time residents to fear that the state might become divided linguistically.

Others, citing recent academic studies, say immigrants here are adopting English as quickly as American immigrants ever have. Ron Wakabayashi, national director of the San Francisco-based Japanese Citizens League, said the Los Angeles school system turns away 40,000 people a year applying for night courses in English.

Wakabayashi, who was born in this country, said Proposition 63 reminds him of people who compliment him on his English. “That means that some people may be thinking as much about race as about language,” he said.

Leading the opposition is Lenny Goldberg, a public interest lobbyist who works out of a small office near a downtown Oakland neighborhood where street signs are in English and Chinese. “If you just ask people straight up, ‘Should English be the official language,’ few would say no,” Goldberg said. His group, Californians United Against Proposition 63, has support from several Hispanic and Asian-American organizations, the California League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union but has failed to raise enough money for extensive advertising.

Sen. Pete Wilson (R) supports the initiative, but comment from other state officials has been largely negative. Gov. George Deukmejian (R) called it “unnecessary, confusing and counterproductive.” The legislature’s Democratic leadership refused even to consider an official-English bill.

Yet a recent Los Angeles Times poll reported 70 percent support for Proposition 63, with 22 percent opposed and 8 percent undecided. The poll showed 54 percent of Hispanic voters in favor of the initiative, despite opposition from every prominent Hispanic organization in the state.

Stanley Diamond, chairman of the pro-initiative campaign, said a big victory “would be extremely important. All the other states are going to take a look at their own constitutions.” Diamond, once an aide to former senator S.I. Hayakawa (R-Calif.), the father of the national official-English movement, said his group also won 72 percent support in 1984 for a referendum recommending an end to bilingual federal ballots.

Six states — Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Nebraska and Virginia — have official-English laws, but none with the impact California’s would be expected to have. An official-English ordinance in Dade County, Fla., led to a temporary halt in non-English marriage ceremonies in the Miami license bureau, court operations officer Luis Flecha said. After a public outcry, the service was restored.

Proposition 63 not only would amend the California constitution to make English the official language but would forbid the legislature to enact any law that “diminishes or ignores the role of English as the common language.” Anyone living in or doing business in the state would have the right to sue for enforcement.

Like the 1984 initiative, the official-English amendment was inspired by widespread distaste for bilingual ballots. No aspect of California’s role as the central receiving point for modern immigrants has enraged voters more. Even the Sacramento Bee, a staunch opponent of Proposition 63, said in an editorial that anyone qualified to vote should know enough English to mark a ballot.

Diamond said his group realizes that the initiative cannot forbid bilingual ballots in the 10 counties where they are mandated by federal law because census data show that at least 10 percent of the population needs them. But it would open the way, Diamond said, to elimination of bilingual, and sometimes trilingual, ballots mandated by local law in Los Angeles and San Francisco counties. Despite large numbers of recent immigrants there, fewer than 10 percent need help in voting, according to the census.

Diamond said he hoped the proposition also could be used to accelerate bilingual programs in the public schools so that immigrant students remain in dual-language classes no more than two years.

Proposition 63 opponents defend bilingual ballots and classrooms and charge that the proponents have an unpublicized objective. “They don’t even want emergency service interpreters for people who call 911,” Goldberg said.

But Diamond said public safety, public health, courts and social service agencies will be exempt from official-English rules. Private enterprises, such as telephone yellow pages in Spanish, will be protected, he said.

Goldberg said, however, that none of these protections is specified in the amendment. “They make it up as they go along,” he said.

Opponents say they hope to raise enough money for radio and television commercials to banish the widespread belief that it is an innocuous endorsement of English. One private poll indicates that at least one-third of the electorate will vote for the amendment no matter what its impact.

In the four small cities that have passed their own English-only laws, emotions on both sides are high. One public official said on a radio talk show that the northern hillside city of Los Altos was about to change its name to The Heights, its English equivalent.

Los Altos Mayor Roger Eng, a dentist of Chinese descent who supports Proposition 63, said the report was false. The Los Altos City Council, which adopted its official-English ordinance last year, likes the city’s name and plans to keep it.

“We’re talking about American English, not the king’s English,” Eng said. “Los Altos is part of that. In tone and sound, I think it’s beautiful.”

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