Wednesday, March 09, 2005

It's baaaaack!

In 1988, Arizonans passed an Official English amendment to our state constitution that would require government services, ballots, etc. to be conducted in English only. It was eventually struck down by the Arizona Supreme Court for violating the U.S. Constitution.

17 years later, Official English is back.

[House Concurrent Resolution 2030] would amend the state constitution, including prohibiting ballots and election materials from being printed in any other language.

[The amendment], which would have to be ratified by voters next year, also would bar printing most other documents in different languages and even would let someone sue the government or its employees and officials for violations.

Supporters believe this bill would survive the legal challenges that brought down the 1988 amendment.

Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said the new language does not have the same flaws. He pointed to a provision that says public employees and officials could continue to speak with constituents and residents in any language. There also are exceptions for public health and safety, protecting the rights of criminal defendants and crime victims, and documents necessary for international trade.

Still, making it illegal to print ballots in another language (and we all know we're talking Spanish here because of Arizona's proximity to Mexico) is disturbing, particularly this gem:

[Rep. Pearce] also said nothing in federal law requires ballots in other languages. Pearce said it simply prohibits states from requiring that voters be fluent in English.

Isn't that drawing a bit too fine a line? We can't require voters to be fluent, but we can make it impossible to vote by not providing ballots in Spanish?

For the record, I strongly believe that immigrants to the U.S., particularly ones who wish to become citizens, need to learn English. I used to work at a school for the deaf, and as such I was a foreigner in their land, if you will. I felt it was therefore incumbent upon me to learn the language of the "land," American Sign Language. After two years of ASL classes and another four years working there, I never did reach fluency, but I got pretty close. By the time I left, I was able to hold one-on-one conversations in ASL with a fair amount of confidence, and if a deaf student or teacher had a request of me, I could usually understand it and respond without help. That said, even in my last year there, if there was an issue of great importance where accurate communication of difficult concepts was critical, I always requested an interpreter. Not out of lack of respect for ASL or out of laziness to use it, but because some things I simply was not yet capable of expressing or understanding in anything but my native language. Had I not left the school when my children were born, I expect that I would have eventually gotten to the point where an interpreter was not necessary for even crucial discussions, but it would have been a long and ongoing process.

If ever there was an issue that fits both the descriptions "complex" and "crucial," it's issues on the ballot. Even with English as my first language I sometimes have difficulty understanding ballot initiatives. Do we really expect a new citizen, even one with a decent command of conversational English, to be able to get the concepts presented on a ballot with enough accuracy to vote correctly? Do we really think that we're following the spirit of the law by not barring non-fluent English speakers from voting, but not allowing them information in their own language?

Encourage residents of our state to learn English, absolutely. But don't put unnecessary barriers in a naturalized citizen's right to vote by forcing All English All the Time down their throats. Print ballots in Spanish because of the vast numbers of Spanish-speakers here, and provide interpreters for non-native speakers of other languages. Some issues are just too important to make language a barrier.


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