Arizona Bans Affirmative Action, Oklahoma Makes English The ‘Official’ Language

In an interview with NPR on Election Day, Pamela Prah of Stateline.org expressed surprise that there were no immigration ballot measures this election season. Given the tenor of the debate, I too would’ve expected a series of anti-immigrant initiatives on several state ballots. However, there were at least two ballot initiatives that are still very much a manifestation of nativist sentiment. One, a proposal in Arizona banning affirmative action and another ballot initiative in Oklahoma which makes English the “official” language of the state. Though neither has a direct effect on immigration policy itself, the passage of both initiatives presents serious implications for the immigrant and Latino communities.

On Tuesday, Arizona approved Proposition 107 “banning the consideration of race, ethnicity or gender by units of state government, including public colleges and universities.” Prop. 107 was spearheaded by the American Civil Rights Committee (ACRC), a Sacramento, California political action committee connected to Ward Connerly that funneled thousands of dollars into Arizona this year. ACRC is described by one Asian political blogger as a group “whose members have spent the last two decades traveling from state to state trying to enact harmful, discriminatory laws under the guise of equality.” Unsurprisingly, state Sen. Russell Pearce (R-AZ), the lawmaker who introduced SB-1070 and was “chief promoter” of a separate bill banning ethnic studies, was one of the main figures pushing the anti-affirmative action ballot initiative. He was even featured in radio ads endorsing the measure.

Opponents included Jeffrey F. Milem, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Arizona, who argued that Prop. 107 arguments “are purposefully misleading” and that the initiative itself is “in direct conflict” with previous Supreme Court decisions. Joe Thomas, vice president of the Arizona Education Association, wrote that Prop. 107 “is an anti-equal-opportunity measure.”

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, voters approved a ballot initiative — Question 751 — which declares English the “official language” of the state. Several states have passed similar legislation, though they tend to vary in their severity. For example, Virginia’s “official language” law stipulates that no state agency or local government shall be required nor prohibited from providing “official” documents in a language other than English. However, Question 751 goes a step further and “requires that official State actions be in English.” “Official state actions” are not defined. Rep. Randy Terrill (R) is one of the legislative members who authored the question’s language — the same lawmaker who told the Associated Press that he “may even take Arizona’s example further and include assets seizure provisions and harsher penalties” for undocumented immigrants. On Question 751, Terrill explains, “What was really the straw that broke the camel’s back was essentially a lawsuit that was prompted against the State of Oklahoma by an Iranian couple in Bartlesville who complained to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration because of our refusal to give them a drivers license test in Farsi.”

Proponents of Question 751 claim that it promotes immigrant integration, however, most experts note that if that were really their goal they’d dedicate more resources to ESL programs. Pat Fennell with the Latino Comm. Development Agency argued, “Instead of passing that kind of legislation, we need to create windows of opportunity while people are learning English.” University of Tulsa professor and attorney, James C. Thomas believes it’s unconstitutional. “It violated the free speech clause. The Supreme Court of Oklahoma in 2002 has already ruled that English only is unconstitutional. Why does the legislature now come back in 2010 and resurrect this issue?” said Thomas.

The language of both ballot initiatives was very carefully crafted. Whether they pass legal muster remains to be seen. What is clear that they were pushed by many of the same actors who have been aggressively pursuing harsh immigration measures throughout the years. Ultimately, it seems likely that these ballot measures are part of a multi-pronged strategy to promote a broader pro-white, anti-minority, anti-multiculturalist right-wing agenda.

*Posted in Think Progress: The Wonk Room

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