BOISE – Idaho has become the latest state to consider making English its official language.
The Senate State Affairs committee voted 7-2 Friday to debate the plan next week, with Republicans beating back an attempt by Democrats on the panel to kill the measure.
The Democrats argued that it’s divisive and wouldn’t change the existing situation, in which nearly all Idaho affairs are conducted in English in a state where the population is 96 percent white.
Sen. Mel Richardson, R-Idaho Falls, said his bill is modeled after laws in neighboring Utah and Arizona and would make English the state’s official language.
It would stop short of making English Idaho’s only language, a distinction Richardson argues would be enough to encourage foreign-born and non-English speakers to brush up on their language skills. Richardson, a radio talk-show host in eastern Idaho, said the bill is meant to target people coming across America’s borders.
“Anytime we wanted to get a lot of calls, just mention education and the borders, and they just poured through,” he said. “There is a great deal of support for English as an official language.”
Richardson is pushing the bill with the help of U.S. English, a Washington, D.C.-based group that’s trying to get similar laws passed in all U.S. states to “preserve the unifying role of the English language in the United States,” according to its Web site. Currently, 27 states have passed some form of official English laws.
Seventy percent of 513 people polled favor an English-only policy for the state, according to Boise State University’s recent public policy survey. In addition, in Canyon County in southwestern Idaho, local government officials in July passed a ban on issuing new reports, forms, brochures and signs in languages other than English.
Sen. Edgar Malepeai, a Pocatello Democrat with Samoan ancestry who is one of Idaho’s few minority lawmakers, opposed the bill, along with Senate Majority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum.
Malepeai remembered growing up and struggling with English before finally mastering it on his own – though he conceded that he sometimes still struggles with his second language in emotional situations.
Passing a law to make English official may further perceptions that Idaho is a closed society that doesn’t welcome some newcomers, he said.
“This is not good for this state to move down this road. We have a lot of people coming in from other countries,” Malepeai said. “They’re coming here to be Americans, and they’re going to learn English. They have to survive.”
Sam Byrd, a minority activist in southwestern Idaho who attended Friday’s meeting, said that the plan is “completely unnecessary.”
Richardson said little would change with his bill.
For instance, interpreters would still be present in courts or in hospitals.
Still, he argued that codifying English could avert costly requirements from the federal government, should it one day require Idaho to expand its non-English services.
California, he pointed out, provides ballots to voters in many languages, including English, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese.
Idaho now prints ballots only in English.
“It’s as a precaution against what may come,” Richardson said.