No Habla Español?: State proposals would make English the official language | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

No Habla Español?: State proposals would make English the official language

"Isn't this country a melting pot?"

Walk into a Department of Motor Vehicles office and you'll have your choice of the various state-produced publications: a Driver's Manual, civil-service exam sheets or a motorcycle manual.

Some of those materials are even available in Spanish. But under two bills pending at the state level, those foreign-language resources would be gone.

House bills 361 and 888 would make English the official language for all Commonwealth business. In the case of 888, proposed by Rep. Scott Perry (R-Cumberland), it would extend that mandate to the state's political subdivisions, like municipalities. And both bills would mean no longer printing materials -- like the kind found at the DMV -- in languages other than English.

"I just think it's important we make a statement to everyone that this is who we are. English has been the language of the country since it's been founded," says state Rep. RoseMarie Swanger, a Lebanon County Republican who proposed HB 361. Swanger says she proposed her bill -- which she has put forth in previous sessions -- at the request of her constituency, which is 9.7 percent Latino, almost double the state average.

But these bills are just the latest in a string of proposals out of Harrisburg that would negatively affect immigrants. State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Cranberry), who did not return calls for comment, has been at the forefront of such bills. For example, he is a co-sponsor of the "National Security Begins at Home" package that includes provisions to mandate local governments to use the E-Verify system to check the legal status of potential employees and terminate the professional license of any employer who knowingly hires an undocumented worker. 

The English-language bills do have exceptions. For example, the English-only provision wouldn't apply in cases of public safety, health or justice -- like translators in a court proceeding; the promotion of international commerce or tourism; communications during emergencies or disasters; nor would it supersede federal law.

Swanger says she wants to reduce the cost of printing materials like the kind found at the DMV, and admits she has yet to do an analysis on how much the state spends. 

The cost for publications varies from department to department. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, for example, spends $122,550 annually on printed and over-the-phone translation, and Spanish publications that are printed and found online. 

The bills have drawn support from ultra-conservatives and anti-immigration types like Metcalfe, and are currently before the state government committee, which Metcalfe heads.

Swanger says she's surprised the bills have made so much progress -- public hearings have already been held. She says "it remains to be seen" if the committee will vote on the bills, "but at least we have the opportunity to discuss them."

Swanger's bill has also received some bipartisan support, including from local Democratic reps Dom Costa and Harry Readshaw, who have signed on as co-sponsors.

"When our ancestors came here, it was expected they learn English," says Readshaw. The Carrick Democrat also says he has heard "overwhelmingly" and "unsolicited" from constituents who support the bill. "When you call government offices and it says ‘push 1, 2, 3' for another language, I think people find it offensive," says Readshaw. 

But the bills have also been met with criticism. The American Civil Liberties Union called a Sept. 14 House state government committee meeting on the measures a "theater of the absurd." 

"The burden is on the supporters of these bills to prove why they're needed and to prove that English is in some kind of danger. The fact is that they cannot prove that," said Andy Hoover, ACLU legal director, in a statement on the hearings. "If enacted, the message these bills would send to workers and multi-national corporations is that they're not welcome here. … Can we afford to become a state that is also unwelcoming to immigrants and ethnic minorities?"

Readshaw and Swanger say they do not believe the bills are discriminatory. "Does anyone have any experience going into Germany, France or Italy and what is of expected of them when they go into other countries?" Readshaw says. "If you go to do business, you'd be expected to speak in the native tongue." 

Other legislators, like Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-Brookline), say they don't see the point of the legislation when there are other pressing needs at the state level. 

"What's the big deal? Why is it so offensive to someone for punch 1 for English, punch 2 for Spanish? Why not? That's what we do in this country," he says. "Don't we have better things to do? Isn't this country a melting pot?"

Swanger says she's trying to help non-English-speaking residents to learn the language to help them get better jobs and education, and she supports offering more English as a Second Language courses. Citing the DMV materials, like the Commercial Drivers License instructions, Swanger says she has "real reservations about someone not being able to communicate in our language and being able to get a license to operate heavy equipment.

 "We're encouraging people to coast by without learning English," she says. "I don't think we're doing them any favors at all."

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