Opponents say it would scare away immigrants, businesses
By Caleb Taylor | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Republicans see making English the official language of Pennsylvania as a cost-saving measure, but Democrats and immigrant groups say it could drain the state’s economy.
Two bills before the state House State Government Committee — HB 361 and HB 888 — would require all official state government functions to be conducted in English.
Proponents of the legislation said the bills would reduce costs and provide an incentive for non-English speakers to learn the language.
However, opponents said the bills should not be a priority and would hurt economic growth.
“This is common-sense stuff that we should have been doing for a long time,” said state Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin. “Taxpayers across Pennsylvania shouldn’t have to subsidize foreign languages. It may be small, but it will be cost saving.”
Republican lawmakers were unable to give an overall estimate of total cost savings from the bills. Both bills would eliminate small expenditures such as state-funded, translated voter registration ballots that cost $80 per 1,000 ballots, according to the Department of State. Federal law requires municipalities to comply with requests for multilingual voting ballots.
In Pennsylvania, several languages are spoken. The Modern Language Association, an international academic organization that promotes the study and teaching of language and literature, said:
German is spoken by 2 percent of the population in 25 counties.
Serb Croation is the language of 2 percent in Beaver County;
Italian is spoken by 2 percent in Beaver County and 1 percent to 2 percent along Pennsylvania's eastern counties that border New Jersey;
Spanish is the language of 4 percent to 9 percent in Berks, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Monroe and Philadelphia counties.
Since there are no uniform guidelines for the use of foreign languages on state government documents, HB 888 and HB 361 would fill the void by requiring English be used for all official literature.
HB 888 would require the use of the English language for state government and all its political subdivisions such as county government, municipal government and school system services. HB 361 would require only state government services to use the English language.
Neither bill would affect foreign language courses or classes designed to increase English proficiency like English as a Second Language, or ESL, courses. Nor would the bills eliminate interpreters for litigants in the court system.
However, creating an English-only state could have unintended consequences on foreign businesses.
Anne O’Callaghan, executive director of the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, an organization that helps immigrants get involved in Pennsylvania’s political, economic and social life, opposes the legislation because “of the powerful warning it sends to international business people, visitors and students.”
The legislation’s “message will be clear: Pennsylvania does not want your business,” said O’Callaghan.
“If even a fraction of potential newcomers heed this message, the economic costs to our state will be significant,” she said.
Brad Baldia, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, an organization that advocates on behalf of immigrants and new Americans, said, “Immigrants have brought economic growth to this state through industries like agriculture, tourism and construction.”
Tim Schultz, director of government relations for U.S. English, a Washington, D.C., organization that advocates for English to be made the official language of the United States, said the bills would lead to more savings for taxpayers than just “the costs of a few government documents.”
“You care about the Pennsylvania high school dropout rate, because you know that improving it … saves taxpayer dollars by making people net contributors to the economy,” said Schultz. “You should care about English learning for the same reason.”
Democrats, however, said the English-only bills were a distraction from more pressing legislative issues like creating jobs and economic growth.
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, chairman of the House State Government Committee, said the bills would help immigrants more quickly assimilate to American culture by learning to speak English.
Thirty-one states have passed English as the official language legislation. In 2006, a similar bill
passed the Pennsylvania state House. No votes were taken on the bills this week.