JEFFERSON CITY — One of this year's Missouri ballot measures, Constitutional Amendment 1, would make English the official language of government proceedings but would leave translation services unchanged.
Opponents of the amendment contend it is unnecessary and that it sends the message that Missouri does not welcome immigrants. Proponents say it would cause no harm to immigrant groups and would protect constituents by ensuring thatcitizens can understand government proceedings.
Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to add a statement that English shall be the language of all governmental meetings at which any public business is discussed, decided, or public policy is formulated whether conducted in person or by communication equipment including conference calls, video conferences, or Internet chat or message board?
It is estimated this proposal will have no costs or savings to state or local governmental entities.
Under the language of the amendment, a government proceeding includes any meeting, conference call, video conference, Internet chat or message board where public business is discussed.
State Rep. Brian Nieves, R-Union, sponsored the amendment. He said it does not target the immigrant community and that he embraces legal immigration.
"This is a completely, absolutely benign amendment," he said. "It does absolutely nothing unless they have the intention of conducting official government business in a language other than English."
Rep. Jerry Nolte, R-Gladstone, said the amendment is a pre-emptive measure that will keep government transparent.
"If we were to conduct our committee meeting in, let's say, German, that would not be conducive to open government that the population can properly understand and make good judgments as to how we're serving them," Nolte said. "I would say that the target is to make sure we have open government that is readily understood by the population and then they can keep their eye on it."
However, one of the state's leading organizations for immigrant rights — Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates — opposes the measure.
"We feel it would limit people to participate in our communities," said Jennifer Rafanan, executive director of the advocacy group. "Why amend our Constitution to make it less welcoming?"
The coalition argues that the amendment has no practical use because there is no danger of government meetings in Missouri being carried out in a language other than English.
Rafanan said most immigrants want to learn English, but there are not enough English language courses for adults to satisfy the demand.
Tony Rothert, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in eastern Missouri, said the ACLU opposes the amendment because its vague definition of government proceedings could cause First Amendment violations.
"If people start interpreting ‘meeting’ to mean any meeting between a public official or constituent or court proceedings or administrative hearings or e-mail messages sent by public officials — if they start interpreting it broadly — then that's when it starts to really affect people and when it would run afoul of the First Amendment," Rothert said.
Rafanan said that since the bill was originally drafted, the definition of a government proceeding has been narrowed. She hopes it would be enough to prevent discrimination.
"I think the amendment is drawn in a narrow fashion that hopefully it won't keep people from petitioning government," she said.
Rothert said the amendment preys on public fears of illegal immigrants and is bad public policy.
"The message of this amendment for immigrants is that Missouri is not a place where you're welcome," he said.
State Sen. Harry Kennedy, D-St. Louis, who opposes the amendment, said it’s a good election issue, but it fails to address any serious matter that Missourians are actually facing.
"The majority of people are going to say, 'Hey listen, my neighbor or I am in danger of losing our house. My company is downsizing. I can't send my child to the college I want because tuition has gotten too expensive,'" he said. "Why are we talking about English-only when in reality it's not going to do anything but be a negative?"
On the other side, Nieves said immigrant-rights organizations are raising worries about the amendment that are unjustified, and that the amendment has no connection with the English-only movement or immigration.
"They believe if they can keep racial tensions high, they can justify their existence," he said. "They lied to the immigrant community to use them as pawns."
Rafanan said Nieves' statements were baffling because her organization is not actively campaigning against the amendment.
"We aren't drumming up racial tension," she said. "There are people across the board who oppose this amendment."