Government

Democrats seek to repeal law making English Iowa's official language

(File photo) The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
(File photo) The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — A 17-year-old law making English the official language of the state of Iowa is outdated and “a terrible message” for immigrants, according to a sponsor of legislation to repeal it.

“It’s antiquated,” Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said about the 2002 Iowa English Language Reaffirmation Act that requires official state documents to be printed in English.

Perhaps more importantly, she said, it tells immigrants they are not welcome.

“We should do everything we can to make them more welcome,” Mascher said about Hispanic, Bosnian and African immigrants coming to Iowa. “We have the lowest unemployment in the nation and we need workers.”

Mascher, one of five Democrats to sponsor the bill, wants the state to provide more classes for English language learners to help immigrants transition to their new communities. Now there are waiting lists for those classes with some new Iowans waiting a year or longer. In some cases, Mascher said, that prevents them from getting jobs or being able to communicate with teachers, health care providers and others.

However, House File 70 does not appear likely to be approved by the House.

“I have no interest in repealing that,” House State Government Committee Chairman Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said of the 2002 law. “(English) is our official language.”

Kaufmann said he hasn’t heard from constituents that they want to change the law, which does not prohibit any legislator of officer of the state from using languages other than English to communicate “if that member or officer deems it necessary or desirable to do so.”

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Iowa was the 27th state to adopt an “English as official language” law in 2002 after often emotional debates by legislators over two years. Supporters said English is a unifying factor in a state that has become increasingly diverse. Critics called it thinly veiled racism that sent a message to immigrants that they’re not wanted.

Despite opposition from his party, Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack signed the bill in the face of a competitive re-election campaign. He said it wouldn’t do great harm and was more symbolic than real. Since then he has expressed regret for signing it.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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