Oregon aims to make English official state language

EUGENE, Ore. (U-WIRE) — Travel throughout Oregon, and it’s possible to hear the 138 different languages that are spoken in the state, at least hypothetically, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

Despite the linguistic diversity, a new bill in the Oregon House aims to make the most commonly spoken language — English — the state’s one official language.

The bill, introduced by state Rep. Donna Nelson, R-McMinnville, would also clarify that Oregon’s state government, including agencies and groups such as the Oregon University System, are not to be required to provide services or information in languages other than English.

Jose Pena-Juárez, who works for Recruitment and Retention for the Multicultural Center, said making English an official language is the wrong place to take any discussion about creating unity.

“If (the state) really wants to unify the people, I think they should talk more about spreading education, getting all Oregonians involved,” Pena-Juárez said.

Government agencies currently aren’t required to provide services or information in other languages other than English, but the bill helps affirm this, and it allows the agencies more control over whether they allocate their resources to other languages, said David Gulliver, a spokesman for Nelson.

Di Saunders, director of communications for OUS, said it had sent out inquiries to all of the state’s universities asking if they printed any publications in Spanish or used Spanish-speaking interpreters.

She said she was still waiting to hear from most of the universities, but the majority of universities print brochures and materials in other languages, as well as use interpreters.

OUS itself provides English and Spanish Web site options for the Oregon GEAR UP program, which provides information on colleges to low-income students.

Gulliver said the bill doesn’t require government agencies to be English-only, as there are federal laws and reasons for providing languages other than in English, but it would make a symbolic statement about the English language being the American language.

“The English language is an important part of our national heritage and our ability as a people to work together,” Gulliver said. “When there are multiple languages and language barriers that exist, it’s divisive. Having a common, official language is a uniting force.”

The bill is co-sponsored by four state representatives and two state senators, all Republican, but an overwhelming amount of support to the bill has come from all across the state through phone calls, e-mails and letters, Gulliver said.

He also cited a recent survey by Portland television station KATU, which found that 92 percent of respondents favored having English as Oregon’s official language.

If the bill were to pass, Oregon would join 28 other states that have passed similar English-only language bills, including California, Arizona, Massachusetts, Alaska and Hawaii.

Pena-Juárez said the bill creates the possibility for a domino effect of future bills that could create more prejudice and discrimination, and that the support for the bill indicates current negative sentiment against people who are considered a threat, such as immigrants.

“I think there’s definitely going to be more political attacks made against non-English speaking people, specifically immigrants,” Pena-Juárez said.

It is unknown if the bill would pass the Oregon House, where it is currently assigned to the Committee on Elections, Ethics and Rules. The bill would have to be approved by the committee chair in order to have a public hearing.