Proposed English-only bill comes under fire

ATLANTA - Placing an English-only requirement on all state and local government documents would protect America's heritage and culture while helping immigrants assimilate into U.S. society, a House Republican said Wednesday.

But opponents of a bill sponsored by Rep. Tim Bearden, R-Villa Rica, told a House subcommittee it would contradict the nation's melting pot tradition and do more harm than good to immigrants' efforts to adapt to their new home.

English is already Georgia's official language. What Bearden's bill would do is require that all documents or forms filed or recorded with a state or local government agency be written in the state's official language.

Bearden told a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee that Georgia currently gives driver's license tests in 14 languages, which leads to potentially dangerous situations of police officers not being able to communicate with non-English motorists they pull over.

Beyond the safety issue, he said, is protecting the English language as a cultural unifier.

"We need to preserve our language, customs and history in this country,'' Bearden said. "This is one step toward doing that.''

But Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, said the bill seeks to preserve English at the expense of other languages that have been spoken throughout America's history, which would strike a blow at the nation's heritage of cultural diversity.

"There's no way I can vote for this,'' he said. "What you're saying is your language, culture and history are better than all the other languages, cultures and histories that are here.''

Others who spoke during Wednesday's hearing on the bill raised practical concerns, including whether non-English speaking criminal suspects could receive their civil rights if documents pertaining to the charges against them could only be in English.

"It might be a constitutional issue in a criminal case ... if a defendant might be denied due process,'' said Fulton County Superior Court Judge Tom Campbell, who spoke to the subcommittee representing a state organization of his judicial colleagues.

Advocates for victims of domestic violence said an English-only law for documents would prevent serving non-English speakers who have battered their spouses with restraining orders they can understand.

And representatives of charitable agencies said mandating English-only driver's license exams would make it harder for non-English speaking immigrants to get jobs, an important step on the road toward assimilation.

But a key question surrounding Bearden's bill went unanswered during Wednesday's hearing.

He said an executive order signed by former President Bill Clinton in 2000 prohibits state and local agencies that receive federal funding from adopting English-only requirements.

That led subcommittee members to ask whether Bearden's bill could be enforced.

"I believe the author has put in this bill to help unify our culture,'' said Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna. "But it begs the question, does it have an application and where?''

Rep. Mack Crawford, R-Concord, the subcommittee's chairman, asked Bearden to research the issue and return with an answer.