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English-language bill advancing despite questions

January 30, 2011

An Indiana proposal to require that state documents be issued only in English is raising philosophical and practical questions from lawmakers trying to navigate the tricky territory of immigration politics. But the bill has gotten early support despite a lack of answers and criticism that it's a Republican effort to cater to the tea party.

Rep. Suzanne Crouch, R-Evansville, said her proposal is simple enough. A constituent asked her a few years ago why state documents were in other languages even though Indiana law states that English is the official language. She said state documents should be printed in the official state language.

"I'm a very black and white person," she said. "It made sense to me."

But the issue — like many topics tangled in immigration — is a politically tricky one for many lawmakers. Some feel pressure from constituents and political opponents to be tough on immigration issues, but those who support such measures are often criticized as cruel.

"It's a very difficult issue to manage," said Sen. Mike Delph, a Republican from Carmel who is pushing an immigration bill that includes a provision similar to Crouch's bill. "By taking on the issue, you invite criticism of a racial bias and an ethnic bias and all these different things. From a political perspective, you don't want to have to deal with that. It puts you in a bad light."

On top of the political considerations, there also seems to be plenty of practical questions surrounding the English language proposals, which are supported by national groups promoting the English language. Crouch's bill includes an exemption that says languages other than English may be used for state documents under certain circumstances, including when required by federal law, when needed to protect rights in court, for public health and safety reasons or to promote tourism.

It's unclear exactly what documents and agencies would be included in the bill and what wouldn't, some lawmakers argued, and Crouch didn't have a comprehensive list of state documents that are currently issued in other languages.

The Department of Revenue offers Spanish forms on its website and takes about 10,000 calls a year from Spanish-speaking residents who need help with their taxes in Spanish, said spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland. The department is seeking a specific exemption from the bill, saying it wants to continue to help those Spanish-speaking citizens — and collect their tax money.

The Bureau of Motor Vehicles currently offers written tests in Japanese and Spanish, a spokesman said, but the portion of the tests dealing with road signs is in English. It's unclear whether the proposal would require a change, and the BMV has not requested an exemption. Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Hammond, said the exams are an important public safety issue because permanent residents are not required to know English as citizens are.

"People need to be able to take drivers' tests in Spanish," she said.

Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said it's difficult to know the full practical effect of the proposal and even more difficult to know why it's needed, since supporters aren't pointing to any particular foreign-language documents that are causing offense. One thing is clear about the "rather confused" legislation, Pierce said.

"That was a message bill for the tea party crowd," he said. "Republicans wanted to send a message to certain supporters who seem to be on the rise in their party that they're with them."

Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, suggested the bill stemmed from frustration over illegal immigration, which he said was a hard issue for states to tackle without action from the federal government.

"I think we recognize it's a problem, but I think many of us also have hesitancy about doing things that come across as being mean in a nation of immigrants," Pelath said. "To me it doesn't seem like it serves any other purpose than to remind people of the differences among us simply to satisfy the anger of a couple of different groups."

Supporters said the state should promote the English language.

"We are making our statement that even though we're a diverse country, we have one official language, and it's English," said Rep. Ralph Foley, R-Martinsville.

Delph said Indiana residents are tired of pressing "1" for English when calling businesses, or hearing Spanish announcements over the Wal-Mart intercom or struggling to understand a worker in the McDonald's drive-thru. While the proposal doesn't address those issues, he said it does send a message that English is clearly the state's official language. The state's website shouldn't have Spanish pages, he said, and state universities shouldn't print applications for foreign students in different languages at taxpayer expense.

Crouch's bill passed the House on a 63-26 vote, with a handful of Democrats joining Republicans to approve the measure and several Republicans voting against it. That bill now heads to the Senate, and Delph's immigration bill is slated to get a Senate hearing Feb. 2.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said his first priority on immigration this year would be passing a fair bill that would send a message to the federal government that it needs to address the issue. Though he said documents printed in a foreign language do not bother him, he acknowledged that to some it is seen as encouraging illegal immigration.

"I don't necessarily agree with that," Long said. "There are plenty of people here legally whose dominant language is still Spanish. That's historically been true of many immigrants."

In fact, when delegates drafted the Indiana Constitution more than 150 years ago, Pierce said, they ordered thousands of copies printed in German so that German-speaking residents would understand.

Interestingly, Pierce noted, that proposal drew few questions and little debate.

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