Friday, August 8, 2008

RESOLUTION PASSES BY 3-1 MARGIN: Council, Mayor ask Nashville to say "no" to foreign language ban

Mayor Dean: "We have too much potential to allow such an unnecessary change in our law to hurt us in so many ways"

The Tennessean and the City Paper report (here and here) on the Metro Council's passage last night of a resolution asking Davidson County not to sign an "English Only" charter amendment petition to ban foreign languages in Metro communications - and if it were to get on the November ballot, to vote against it. The resolution, introduced by Metro Councilman Ronnie Steine, passed 25 (aye) to 8 (no) to 2 (abstain). A copy of the resolution appears below.

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean addressed the Council before the vote, and the text of his comments also appear below.

Nashville has had role in national pullback

In the last year or so, the country has started to pull back from out-of-control immigrant politics.

Nashville was part of that movement last year, when former Mayor Purcell vetoed the Metro Council's English ordinance, which unlike this year's petition, contained exceptions for health, safety, and welfare* (story here); and just a few months after that at LP Field, former Republican presidential candidate Sam Brownback apologized to a Christian audience for the backlash against Hispanics that was sparked by the federal immigration debate (story here).

With last night's resolution, Nashville's city officials have taken a leadership position to keep our city moving in the same direction as last year. Whether Nashville finishes 2008 claiming a leadership position in this practical and moral awakening could depend on whether we put on the ballot and pass a city charter amendment to ban foreign languages in government communications, as the current petition proposes*.

Council resolution had been ruled out by language ban opponents

Interestingly, some opponents of the English Only petition had determined just a few weeks ago that asking the Council for a resolution of this nature would be a practical impossibility, and it was not pursued. Fortunately, despite the miscalculation of ordinary citizens, Councilman Ronnie Steine eventually drafted and championed the successful resolution. He told the Tennessean here that "It's important that the public understand that while one council member is supportive, not all of us are."

Address of Mayor Karl Dean to Metro Council

Thank you and good evening. Vice Mayor Neighbors, members of the Council, Madam Clerk, ladies and gentlemen. This is the third time during my nearly 11 months in office that I have come to the Council Chambers at the start of your meeting and I appreciate the opportunity to do so again tonight.

This evening I am here to speak on the proposed charter amendment to make English the official language of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and prohibit any kind of government service from being offered in languages other than English. While I do not question the intentions of the organizers of this initiative, I feel a responsibility as mayor to explain the implications such a radical change in our law could have for our city.

First, let’s talk about what this referendum is not. It is not a vote on immigration reform and it is not a harmless message to office holders. The proposed charter amendment will have absolutely no effect upon efforts to curtail illegal immigration or to reform current national policy. Rather than permitting voters to send a message to the government, the referendum alters our charter in a manner that will create legal, political, social and even moral consequences for years to come.

While the initiative is called English First, to be clear, the language of the amendment is so broad that it would restrict all government communications to English only, and I don’t believe the extent of the impact such a law would have has been fully considered.

Nashville is a growing and vibrant city, and as we have grown in recent years, so too has our reach to the international community. One example of this is the CMA Music Festival, visited by more than 200,000 people this summer. Contributing to the record attendance was a 30 percent increase in international visitors over last year. We had people from Germany, and France – from all over the world here in Nashville for a week in June to listen to the world’s best country music.

This year our library for the first time held an International Puppet Festival with puppet troupes from as far away as China. Attendance at the two-day festival well exceeded expectations, and I believe it has the potential to grow into a citywide event in the years ahead.

The way the charter amendment is written, if any one of those international visitors contacted our government, perhaps even in a life-threatening situation where they needed emergency medical care or just to get directions, our government employees would not be able to communicate with that visitor in their native language, even if we had the capacity to do so. Ladies and gentlemen, that is not the message we need to send the international community.

We have dozens of companies in Nashville participating in international commerce, and prospects for attracting many more. My office of economic and community development and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce work every day to attract business relocations and expansions to our city, something we must continue to do if we are to grow our economic base. Nashville’s growing importance as a center of international commerce is evidenced by the location of the Consular Office of Japan, which opened here this year.

Under the charter amendment, if Nashville wanted to communicate with a foreign-based company to encourage them to come to Nashville – and the recent announcement of Volkswagen in Chattanooga is a good example of the significance that could have – if we wanted to do that communication, whether it’s a letter or conversation in person, in the company’s native language, we wouldn’t be able to.

Nashville participates in the Sister Cities program. We have sister cities in Northern Ireland, France, Canada, Germany and China. This is a program built around the concept of promoting international cooperation and understanding. This amendment would prevent us from communicating with the municipal leaders we’re associated with through our sister city relationships in languages other than English.

We have a number of political refugees living in Nashville – people who have come to the United States from places like Sudan and Somalia who are escaping persecution in their own countries because of their religious beliefs or political beliefs. We need to be able to help these people assimilate in our community and become productive citizens without a self-imposed barrier on our ability to communicate with them.

People come to our city every year as new, legal residents, whose native language is not English. As a government, we have a responsibility to protect and care for all of our citizens no matter the language they speak. If they are a victim of a crime or reporting a crime, we need to be able to communicate with them.

The negative consequences of this amendment would be very real and substantial. It is a divisive issue, and ultimately, a distraction from those things that are important to us as a city and that we need to be working on together.

The decision to pass the amendment may ultimately rest with the voters. But I wanted to take this time, this opportunity to make sure my voice, as mayor of this city, is heard on this issue, and to assure that everyone fully understands the consequences of passing a law that will tie our hands in the global economy, that will detract from our appeal as an international tourist destination, and that will damage our reputation as a welcoming and friendly city.

Let us not forget, English is the official language of Tennessee. This is not in question. To put it plainly, we have too much potential to allow such an unnecessary change in our law to hurt us in so many ways. Thank you for your time tonight.

Full text of resolution

A resolution requesting the citizens of Nashville and Davidson County not to sign the English-only Charter amendment petition cards and not to support it if placed on the ballot.

WHEREAS, a petition drive is currently underway to place a proposed amendment to the Metropolitan Charter on the November 2008 ballot to designate English as the official language of the Metropolitan Government and to require that government services and official communications be provided only in English; and

WHEREAS, in February 2007, former Mayor Bill Purcell vetoed Substitute Ordinance No. BL2006-1185, which would have declared English as the official language of the Metropolitan Government, and would have required that all government communications, publications and telephone answering systems be in English, except when required by federal law or when necessary to protect or promote public health, safety or welfare; and

WHEREAS, in his veto message to the Council dated February 12, 2007, Mayor Purcell referenced an opinion of the Metropolitan Department of Law that Ordinance No. BL2006-1185 was unconstitutional; and

WHEREAS, unlike the language contained in Substitute Ordinance No. BL2006-1185, the proposed ballot language contains no exception for public health, safety or welfare, which makes the ballot measure more likely to be found by the courts to be unconstitutional; and

WHEREAS, English is the common and unifying language of the United States of America, and is already the official and legal language of Tennessee; and

WHEREAS, English acquisition among new immigrants and refugees is a critical factor in their ability to obtain gainful employment, participate fully in the community, integrate successfully into American society, and qualify for United States citizenship; and

WHEREAS, the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County conducted an Immigrant Community Assessment in 2003 (contract #14830) "to gauge the adjustment of immigrants in the Nashville-Davidson county area," finding that roughly one-third of Nashville's foreign-born residents are "linguistically isolated," and making several recommendations to improve integration, which included:

1. "Increasing English-language instructional opportunities that are offered during non-working hours."
2. "Offering more English-language instruction at proficiency levels higher than the elementary level."
3. "Increasing the supply of bilingual emergency-service receptionists and providers".;


WHEREAS, an "English Only" Charter amendment would further reduce government services for limited English proficient (LEP) individuals, with a potentially detrimental impact on those who are already linguistically isolated; and

WHEREAS, in addition, such a Charter amendment sends a message to prospective individuals and organizations seeking to locate in Nashville that we do not value diversity in our community; and

WHEREAS, defending a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the English Only Charter amendment would cost the taxpayers of Davidson County hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time when Metropolitan Government employees are being laid off and services are being reduced due to the substantial strain on government resources; and

WHEREAS, it is in the best interest of the taxpayers of the Metropolitan Government that this proposed Charter amendment not be placed on the November ballot.


Section 1. That the Metropolitan County Council hereby goes on record as requesting the citizens of Nashville and Davidson County not to sign the English-only Charter amendment petition cards, nor support the measure at the November 2008 election in the event it appears on the ballot.

Section 2. This Resolution shall take effect from and after its adoption, the welfare of The Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County requiring it.
*The Nashville charter as amended by the petition would read, "[A]ll official government communications and publications shall be published only in English." With no exceptions, the policy becomes a language ban.

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