Wednesday, July 26, 2006

County sets ‘English-only’ rule

Government: Commissioners unanimously order agencies not to provide publications or reports in foreign languages

By Sharon Strauss - Idaho Press-Tribune

CANYON COUNTY — Canyon County commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday to prohibit the distribution of materials in any language other than English.

The measure affects signs, documents, reports, pamphlets and booklets. The only exceptions include certain forms and translation services required by federal law to people detained by the sheriff’s office or under the jurisdiction of magistrate and district courts.

Commissioner Robert Vasquez, an ardent opponent of illegal immigration, wrote the English-only resolution at the request of fellow commissioners Matt Beebe and David Ferdinand.

County officials said the policy stemmed from an earlier discussion and a recent request to provide some information in Spanish.

“It’s imperative and prudent to take these actions now and to have some framework in place to protect the citizens of Canyon County,” said Vasquez, who has received nationwide attention in the movement for tougher immigration laws.

The commissioner said he believes the measure will reduce liability issues, maintaining that a mistranslation of documents could result in lawsuits against the county.

“Plus, it’s the language of the land and that’s how it should be,” Vasquez said. “I don’t care if you speak Swahili, Farsi, Bosnian, or Spanish. This makes it more convenient and safer for everyone.”

Critics said they believe the measure is a move in the wrong direction.

“It doesn’t send a real message of welcome to people who are speakers of another language, does it?” said Sam Byrd, director of the Center for Community and Justice. “What message does it send to people here legally who just happen to be in the process of learning a new language?”

Byrd pointed out that it takes time for new immigrants to learn the nation’s leading language.

“No one learns English overnight. This action doesn’t mean people will magically learn English overnight, just because the commissioners want them to,” Byrd said, adding that he believes a better use of the time and energy devoted to the resolution would be better spent on proven ways to increase English literacy.

But the commission decided that county money shouldn’t be used to create multilingual documents.

“We’re not linguists here,” Vasquez said. “Isn’t it an added expense to the county to provide something in another language?”

Exceptions to the rule

The resolution affects the majority of printed communications provided to the public by county offices.

Some documents and communications are protected by federal law, such as administrative license suspension advisory forms for driving under the influence cases and Miranda rights forms used by the Canyon County jail.

Interpretations and translations are also provided in magistrate and district courts, as well as juvenile hearings, in both criminal and civil matters.

Language services currently provided to residents by the county include translations in emergency calls to dispatch. A language-line is often used for callers who speak other languages and a third-party translator — sometimes from out-of-state — is put on line with the caller. Russian, Island dialects and Laotian, in addition to Spanish, are some examples of language services provided recently by dispatcher translators, Canyon County Sheriff’s Captain Dana Maxfield said.

The court system uses approximately a half-dozen contracted translators, who work on an as-needed basis. “When I started here 21 years ago, I interpreted in 59 court cases the first month,” 3rd District Court Interpreter Coordinator Estella Zamora said. “At this point, we have exceeded 500 court appearances requiring translation (for) at least three months out of the year.” Recent interpretations have been provided for Russian, Laotian, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Romanian and Bosnian.

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