Arizona Considers Banning Non-English Government Mailings

The Arizona House is planning to take up an “English only” bill that would ban state agencies from mailing out information in any language other than English. HB 2283, cleared on Tuesday by the House Government Committee, purports to save money by only allowing non-English translations to be posted online.

Though voting materials are exempted, banning non-English mailings would essentially cut off Arizona’s substantial Spanish-speaking population from government services — particularly any Spanish speakers who receive any kind of service from the government, including Medicaid and Social Security. As of 2010, Arizona has the 8th largest population of limited English speakers, who comprise 9.9 percent of all Arizona residents. Rather than promote English language education, Arizona excluded these residents by making English the official state language in 2006.

This new bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steve Smith (R-AZ), has pushed several other radical anti-immigrant measures, most recently a bill requiring hospitals to check and report the immigration status of their patients. While he claims HB 2283 saves money by only printing documents in English, others anticipate costly lawsuits like the ones sparked by the state’s last attempt at English only legislation. In 1988, Arizona passed a constitutional amendment to require all official government business be conducted in English. The Supreme Court struck it down for violating state employees’ First Amendment rights. The 2006 measure passed muster because it only applies to official government business.

But Smith’s bill, by focusing on agencies’ abilities to disseminate information, could block non-English speakers’ access to government services and violate federal law:

“The bill as currently drafted is much broader than Rep. Smith suggests,” said attorney Ellen Katz with the William E. Morris Institute for Justice. “It violates Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act. Even in states that have an English-as-their-official-language policy, you still have to follow federal law.”

Title 6 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal funds. Katz said mailing out documents in English but not in other languages would violate that.

Even a fellow Republican, Rep. Doug Coleman, took issue with Smith’s proposal, noting that if the bill’s true purpose is to save money, all English publications should be restricted to websites as well.

English only laws exist in 16 states. Last year, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) unsuccessfully pushed a federal version of the English only law, the English Language Unity Act.