Language vote divides community

Published 6:40 am Monday, July 26, 2010

The northern Twin Cities suburb of Lino Lakes could be the first city in Minnesota to declare English as its official language — an idea that has divided residents in the community of about 19,000.

Under the proposal, city materials could not be printed, nor could city meetings be translated, into other languages. The City Council could vote on the proposal as early as tonight.

Critics of the measure say it’s part of a movement sweeping the country— one of growing resentment against people in the United States illegally.

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Some worry that it also could lead to intolerance in Lino Lakes, a semi-rural area of tranquil lakes and wide open spaces. It’s a place where pickup trucks and signs for U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a high-profile Republican, are common. What’s uncommon is people of color. The city is about 92 percent white.

City Councilmember Dan Roeser acknowledges that his English-language proposal would have no practical value immediately. Lino Lakes has never translated official documents into other languages — and no one apparently has ever asked the city to do so.

“If it were enacted today, tomorrow nothing would change,” Roeser said.

But he thinks his resolution would save City Hall future expenses of translation, signage and printing costs.

While the immigration patterns that have helped changed the demographics of much of the Twin Cities haven’t taken hold in Lino Lakes, Roeser said it’s only a matter of time before that changes.

“As a council member, you can’t bury your head in the sand,” he said. “You try to be forward-looking. You try to see what’s coming down the road, so you can save money in the future.”

He points out that the written Minnesota drivers’ license test is offered in six languages in some stations.

Roeser, who raised the English-language proposal during a recent city budget discussion, said he unknowingly tapped into a tempest. He’s received more than 100 impassioned emails and phone calls from people all over the country.

One Lino Lakes resident wrote that the idea made him sick to his stomach and was a symptom of something much worse. A woman supporting the idea emailed the city saying it was time that communities, “took back OUR country, instead of letting all others of different nationalities run it.”

Roeser said his proposal has nothing to do with a growing sentiment against illegal immigration. But he said, “I think people should come here legally.”

Outside City Hall, Christian Rubino, said she thinks the proposal has everything to do with a growing sentiment against illegal immigration, and points to the uproar over an Arizona law set to take effect this week. The law requires local police to check the immigration status of people they have a reasonable suspicion about.

Rubino, who came to the United States from Nicaragua three decades ago, said she thinks there’s a hidden agenda behind the English-language proposal.

“If they [pass] that, it’s going to be like a license to be racist,” Rubino said.

In Minnesota, she said, her conversations in Spanish with her children rub people the wrong way.

“Some people will pass by and say, ‘English only,’” Rubino said. “I’m not bothering anybody. I’m teaching them another language.”

One of the people behind the English-only movement is Christian recording artist Eddie Garcia, who moved to the United States from Cuba when he was three. He has advocated for a failed referendum to make English the official language of Nashville — a position that has made him unpopular with some Latinos.

“I was called traitor,” Garcia said. “I remember one person saying, ‘You’re Hispanic. Why are you doing this to Hispanic people?’ I’m like, I’m American. I never forgot my heritage, I never forgot my language, I never forgot the foods of my dad’s parents or my mom’s parents, but I live in the United States, and this is my country. And I’m helping people who want to be part of this country by saying, ‘Learn the language.’”

English-only measures have sprouted up around the country, including small towns in the Chicago area and New York. An attorney for the League of Minnesota Cities advised Lino Lakes city council members that such measures are frequently challenged in the courts. But the lawyer said there is no clear case law in Minnesota.

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota said such measures could violate the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on national origin. He also said the Lino Lakes proposal may have more to do with scoring political points among “nativist voters.”

The Lino Lakes’ resolution declares English as the official government language, but provides exceptions in many areas, including public health, public safety, tourism, “the administration of justice,” and emergencies.

“So, what exactly are they banning?” Samuelson said. “Everything’s included and nothing’s included. And this resolution means everything and nothing. This was brilliant political theater.”

Luz Maria Frias, St. Paul’s director of human rights and equal economic opportunity, said her city spent $3,700 last year on translation services, including on sign-language interpretation for the deaf. Cities that receive federal funding are required to improve access to services for people with limited English proficiency, she said.

The MetroNorth Chamber of Commerce, which serves the northern Twin Cities suburbs, has opposed the Lino Lakes resolution. Lori Higgins, its president, said the perception that the area is unwelcoming could hurt the region’s ability to attract companies and highly skilled workers seeking vibrant, diverse communities.

“We live in a global economy, and the perception of isolationism will be averse to positive economic development and long-term growth in the area,” Higgins said.