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English-only, other anti-immigrant laws spread in US

Associated Press | December 8, 2006

Fed up with government inaction on the hot-button issue of illegal immigration, a growing number of American towns are taking matters into their own hands adopting controversial and, some say, illegal legislation.

From making English the official language of local government to banning foreign flags, more than 30 cities or municipalities across the country in recent months have adopted anti-immigrant measures.

Many have also passed laws banning landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants and penalizing local businesses that hire illegals.

Observers say such measures reflect a growing sense of frustration with the federal government's ongoing debate on how to deal with the country's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, most of them from Mexico and Central America.

"In most cases, these local changes to the law or ordinances that are trying to be passed represent communities first of all dealing with an influx of immigration," said Audrey Singer, an expert on immigration trends with the Brookings Institution, an independent Washington think tank.

"Secondly the leadership in those places are frustrated by the federal government and so they are taking immigration law in their own hands."

Singer also noted that whereas 10 years ago the issue of illegal immigration involved only a few states, it has now become a nationwide concern as immigrants, mostly Hispanics, have spread across the country.

"The newness of the phenomenon and, in some cases, the growth, has been very fast," Singer told AFP. "So local leadership in come cases embrace immigrants and accommodate them and in some cases work toward deflecting them elsewhere."

In Pahrump, a desert outpost in the Western state of Nevada with a growing immigrant population, the local council in November voted an English-only ordinance along with a measure barring residents from flying a foreign flag unless it is placed below an American flag. Violators face a 50-dollar fine and 30 hours of community service.

In Hazleton, an industrial city in the Northeast state of Pennsylvania, local authorities justified the adoption of a tough anti-immigrant ordinance by arguing that illegals contribute to an increase in crime, failing schools and are a burden to the city's resources.

Rob Toonkel, spokeswoman for US English, a group that promotes the use of the English language in government and that has helped several towns draw up ordinances to that effect, said such measures have nothing to do with racism.

"Official English legislation as written has nothing to do with criticizing immigrants in any way," Toonkel told AFP. "What it says is 'you can't walk into a government office and demand service in a language other than English."

But critics fear such measures will eventually lead to a more general backlash against legal immigrants or anyone who looks different or even speaks with an accent.

"They almost represent kind of a green light for discrimination against immigrants generally and against US citizens who may appear to be foreign," said Omar Jadwat, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed lawsuits against the ordinances in many cities, including Hazleton, on grounds they are unconstitutional.

"The practicalities of how these ordinances work tend to encourage people to discriminate generally against folks who look foreign regardless of their immigration status," Jadwat said.

William Ramos, director of the Washington office of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), said the anti-immigrant measures are more a knee-jerk reaction than a thoughtful response to community problems.

"Whichever it is, I certainly hope that folks can be enlightened quickly enough to understand that these 11 million Latinos who are undocumented are not necessarily going anywhere, anytime soon," he said.

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