Pennsylvania is the most recent state to consider legislation to make English the official language. Its latest proposed official English bills are currently waiting to be called for a committee vote so they can advance to the House floor.
If the legislation passes, Pennsylvania will become the 32nd state with official English laws.
Brad Baldia, Executive Director for the Pennsylvania Immigration & Citizenship Coalition, said his organization is strongly against official English-language legislation in the state.
“[This bill] perpetuates a stereotype that immigrants coming to the U.S. don’t want to learn English, but that’s absolutely not true,” he said.
Baldia said it contributes to creating a more unwelcoming environment not just for immigrants but also for businesses and people who want to invest in and visit the state.
As the rest of the country has seen a rise in immigrants, so has Pennsylvania. The Immigration Policy Center’s New Americas in the Keystone Sate report states that, according to U.S. Census numbers, the foreign born population went from 3.1 percent of the total population in 1990 to 4.1 percent in 2000 and 5.3 percent in 2008. In 28 years the Latino and Asian population each more than doubled and that one in 14 Pennsylvanians are from one of these ethnic groups.
According to the bills, HB 888 and HB 361, English would be the official language of the Pennsylvania state government.
HB 888 stretches official English requirements to state government and all its political subdivisions, which includes all levels of government in Pennsylvania, from municipal to state, and the public school system.
HB 361 doesn’t have those subdivisions, but it does, however, include a private right of action, which HB 888 doesn’t have. This gives an individual the right to take legal action against a state that does not implement or enforce an official English law.
Five of the 31 states with official English legislation have private rights of action.
Both bills allow for exceptions in cases such as when mandated by federal law, concerns of public health, safety and justice, foreign language and ESL courses, and promotion of international commerce and tourism.
Although the bill allows for exceptions, its opponents believe it sends a negative message to immigrants.
Andy Hoover, Legislative Director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania said the bills further create an atmosphere of xenophobia.
Supporters of the bill argue that more people learn English with official language laws.
Tim Schultz, director of government relations for U.S. English, the nation’s oldest and largest citizens' action group dedicated to making English the country’s official language, testified in support of the bill on Sept. 14. He said that the motivation behind official English legislation isn’t to protect the language, or to make sure another language isn’t edging out English. Instead, it’s to maximize the number of immigrants who are learning the language.
Suzanne Bibby, director of government relations for ProEnglish who also testified in support of the bill echoed that sentiment. “There’s no downside to anybody being able to speak English and speak it well,’’ she said. “We don’t promote monolingualism. Speaking many languages is definitely a very good thing, but making sure that at least one of them is English. English is the language of success, and assimilation is a very good thing.”
Both supporters and opponents of the bill cite money as a key argument. But they couldn’t give estimates for how much money the bill would save the state.
Schultz said an official English language law would save money because the government does not have to automatically do business in multiple languages.
One of the bill’s main sponsors, State Rep. Scott Perry (R-York/Cumberland), said at the committee hearing that the state could avoid costs such as discrimination claims from languages left out of multilingual forms.
Baldia said official English legislation would actually cost money to implement the law. He added that state tourism and small businesses would lose money because it would drive foreign visitors and residents from Pennsylvania.
“You can look at how it’s affected other states that have enacted these types of [anti-immigration] laws, for example Arizona, Georgia, Alabama, that are loosing millions of dollars,” he said.
Both sides agree on the importance of English for new immigrants, Hoover said. But people who oppose this bill think the state needs to do something more practical and invest in English language learner programs.
The funding for those programs has actually been cut in the most recent state budget, Hoover said. Making English the official language does nothing to promote integration, but investing in those classes would, Hoover said.
Pennsylvania State Rep. Babette Josephs (D-Philadelphia), who described both HB 361 and HB 888 as “very vicious,” is particularly concerned about the private right of action in HB 361.
Recently someone in her official district office was on the phone with a constituent who didn’t speak English very well, and the person in her office had to speak to the constituent in Russian.
Josephs isn’t sure if that situation would have met the exception criteria of the bill.
“If something like that becomes law in Pennsylvania, do we all have to have a lawyer on staff to make sure that we’re not violating any of the law every time we make a call and every time we talk to anybody whose English language skills are weak?” she asked.
Rep. Josephs said if the bill did become law she wouldn’t be able to help her constituents in another language and they wouldn’t be able to approach her office in another language.
According to Rep. Josephs, the bills haven’t been listed yet on the committee agenda, and there has only been a hearing on the two bills.
“I will be surprised, though not terribly surprised, if it ever gets listed on the House [schedule],” she said.
Schultz and other supporters of the bills are more optimistic that they will become law. But their ultimate and more challenging goal is to pass official English-language legislation at the federal level.