U.S. English Controversey Said Eroding Support of Voters
Proponents of ballot measures that would make English the official language of Arizona, Colorado, and Florida say they are confident of victory, but critics are hopeful that a recent controversy involving leaders of the movement will damage the campaign's credibility.
The proposed state constitutional amendments are backed by U.S. English, a private organization that supports the addition of a similar amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Although polls in all three states indicate that a majority of voters favor the measures, opponents last week reported some slippage in support in the wake of a controversy sparked by a memorandum written by the former chairman of U.S. English, John Tanton.
The document, which was unrelated to the organization's business, warned that Hispanics and other racial and ethnic groups with high birthrates could pose a threat to whites. It also suggested that the growing numbers of Catholic Hispanic immigrants might affect American principles of church-state separation.
The memo--and other reports4that a contributor had endorsed forced sterilization in countries with high population growth--prompted the resignations of Linda Chavez, the group's president, and Walter Cronkite, the former CBS News anchorman, who served on the organization's board. Mr. Tanton also resigned.
In Arizona, where the revelations first surfaced in the press, opponents cite polls showing that support for the proposed amendment has slipped from 64 percent to 52 percent, while the percentage of those in opposition has grown from about 38 percent to 42 percent.
In Colorado, polls show that about 60 percent of voters still favor the measure, down 4 percent from an earlier survey. And in Florida, observers say support may have waned slightly from the 80 percent recorded earlier, but proponents still outnumber opponents by a wide margin.
Critics of the amendments, however, say they remain hopeful that the recent controversy will damage the credibility of the official-English movement in the long run.
"We hope it sheds some light on who these people really are and what their real motives are," said Perry G. Baker, a spokesman for the No on Proposition 106 Committee, which was named after the initiative on the state's ballot.
"I think it has damaged the whole credibility of U.S. English very badly," added Diane Rich, the director of a group that opposes the Colorado initiative.
Martha Jiminez, a policy analyst and staff lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said she hoped the incident would "force people to think critically about this issue."
"That's half the battle, since the measure itself appears so innocuous," she noted.
Proponents of the three ballot measures, meanwhile, have attempted to distance themselves from the controversy.
"What Tanton did was stupid, anti-Hispanic, and anti-Catholic, but this is not the purpose of the campaign," said Mark A. LaPorta, a Florida doctor who directs the Florida English Campaign.
Stanley Diamond, the new acting chairman of U.S. English, said his group supports the preservation of all languages and cultures but believes that "this is not a public responsiblity."
Mr. Diamond's organization has been among the most vocal critics of transitional bilingual education, the form of instruction for non-English speakers favored by most Hispanic advocacy groups. It contends that the method segregates students and thwarts English acquisition by keeping pupils in native-language classes too long.
"I hope that if there are overwhelming victories in any of the states, that it will send a message to the legislature to open bilingual education up to new methods, innovation, and flexibility," Mr. Diamond said.
While the Florida and Colorado measures make no mention of bilingual education, the Arizona measure states that schools may continue "to assist students not proficient in the English language, to the extent necessary to comply with federal law, by giving educational instruction in a language other than English to provide as rapid as possible a transition to English."
Because federal laws do not ensure protection of state bilingual-education programs, however, critics argue that the official-English amendments could encourage schools to abandon such programs rather than face the threat of lawsuits.
Ms. Jiminez noted that an official-English amendment approved in California "created a climate" that contributed to the "sunset" of the state's bilingual-education law and Gov. George Deukmejian's decision to veto a bill that would have reauthorized it.
Education groups in all three states have opposed the ballot measures.
Jeffrey T. Browne, coordinator of an opposition group in Florida called Speak Up Now for Florida, said he was hopeful that recent events would make the state legislature "leery" of enacting the laws necessary to enforce the official-English measure if it wins.
But Mr. Diamond maintained that "politically savvy" legislators would "be guided by the vote" and would enact appropriate legislation.
Even without such laws, however, passage of the ballot measures could have "symbolic" consequences, according to Ms. Jiminez.
"Even if the legislature never lifts a finger, the measure will have had an effect," she said. "What they can't monitor is the divisiveness it has in society."