Immigration

Xenophobic Attempt to Put "English First" in Nashville Fails

Voters resoundingly defeated a councilman's quest to make English the Tennessee city's official language.

Editor's Note: A proposal to make English the official language of Nashville, Tenn. was defeated on Jan. 22. While the coalition that came together to defeat the measure is celebrating, English-only proponents claim they are winning in state capitols around the country. NAM contributing editor Marcelo Ballvé reports on immigration. This is part of NAM's Reports from the Frontlines.

"No más." No more. Those were the words of surrender reportedly spoken by a Nashville councilman on January 22, after voters defeated his quest to make English the city's official language.

Eric Crafton, whose "English First" effort fetched national headlines, was alluding to words supposedly spoken by Roberto Duran as he quit his 1980 boxing match against Sugar Ray Leonard.

But leaders of the broader movement to legislate English as an official language are not quitting the fight. They say despite the Nashville defeat they stand to make gains in state capitols.

Nashville English OnlyMeanwhile, Nashville immigrant rights activists vowed to spread the successful strategies they deployed to fight the legislation-- including mobilizing ethnic media and immigrant voters-- to like-minded groups in states where language battles are brewing. Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRCC) Executive Director Stephen Fotopulos shared Nashville's experiences organizing against the law at a December meeting of southeast immigrant advocates in Mississippi.

Immigrant rights activists joined in a well-funded coalition, called Nashville for All of Us, created to fight Crafton's legislation, which they call "English Only". The coalition included universities, businesses, and church leaders. Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen sided with the coalition.

"Nashville was put to a test, and we passed a test," says Catalina Nieto, advocacy and education director for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC). "It sent a really strong message to the rest of the country that trying to push through these measures, coming from a place of fear or misunderstanding, is not the right way to go."

Nashville's "English First" measure lost 57 to 43 percent in the Jan. 22 special election. The turnout was 19 percent, considered high for an issue-centered special election.

Still, Nashville was no watershed, says Tim Schultz, director of government relations at U.S. English, a Washington D.C.-based group that backed Crafton's campaign with advice and some $5,000 in independent ads.

Another out-of-state group, ProEnglish, based in Virginia, spent at least $19,000 on Crafton's campaign, according to spokesman K.C. McAlpin. [Nashville's WSMV-TV reports today that new financial disclosures show ProEnglish contributed $82,500 of the $89,000 raised by the campaign].

The involvement of U.S. English and ProEnglish is evidence that the Nashville ballot was actually a skirmish in a broader battle. On one side are those who see multilingualism as a badge of a cutting-edge globalized, open society. On the other, are those who see it as a Babel-like chaos that drains public coffers and undermines national identity.

"If we start going down the road to multilingualism in this country we are going to lose the ability to establish communication and empathy between people who may otherwise have nothing in common," says McAlpin of ProEnglish.

Opponents say "English-only" laws are discriminatory and interfere with access to government services and free speech. They point to connections they've drawn between the "official English" movement and bigoted organizations. Though the movement denies racist premises, critics say a hard-line focus on English sends a hostile message to immigrants and businesses.

"It sends a bad signal to the international world: 'we only speak English, if you don't speak English we don't want to do business with you,'" says Joseph Guerrier, a Haitian immigrant who for ten years has hosted a multilingual radio show in Nashville, Planet Creole.

The "official English" movement sees its agenda gaining in state legislatures. Thirty states already have some form of legislation designating English as the official language.

In November, Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot to that effect. A half-dozen states are likely to pass similar laws within the next three years, according to Schultz: Oklahoma, West Virginia, Rhode Island, Ohio, Texas and Michigan. A few others, like Georgia, are likely to strengthen existing statutes.

In Iowa, however, the reverse is happening: support is building for a repeal to a 2002 law declaring English the state's official language.

If it had passed, Nashville would have become the first major American city with "official English". Smaller communities, like Hazleton, Pennsylvania (population 23,000) have already passed such laws.

Another hotspot in the language wars, according to Schultz, is likely Oklahoma, where "official English" legislation looks set to pass now that Republicans gained control of both houses in November.

But Native American leaders, clergy and immigrants are coming together to oppose it.

Oklahoma lawmakers have been careful to carve out exceptions for Native American languages in their "official English" proposals. But influential tribal leaders such as Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith, whose tribe counts over 200,000 members, still have spoken out strongly against "English-only," in part because their own languages were once denigrated.

Linguist Alice Anderton, executive director of the nonprofit Intertribal Wordpath Society devoted to Indian languages, and spokesperson for multiethnic lobbying group Coalition for Language Diversity says Oklahoma has a ways to go.

"We don't have the strong kind of organization and united front that I would like to see, yet," she says, "but I think people are coming together more and more."

 

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