House votes to make English official Michigan language

February 22, 2018 GMT

Lansing — Michigan’s Republican-led House on Thursday approved legislation that would make English the official state language and require its use in public records, a change supporters said would largely “codify” existing practice.

Most Democrats bemoaned the bill, however, calling it an unnecessary and divisive change that would marginalize immigrants and other residents who are not proficient in English.

Sponsoring Rep. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, downplayed the criticism, noting that 32 other states have enacted similar laws. The bill “acknowledges a fundamental truth” that English already is the official language here too, he said.

“I agree we’re a very diverse state,” Barrett said, “but don’t you think that diversity with no shared values, experiences or commonality drives us deeper and deeper into our own corners and our silos?”

The proposal would require the use of English in official public documents, but it would not preclude a state agency or local unit of government from also printing documents and forms in other languages.

The bill “does nothing,” said Rep. Vanessa Guerra, D-Saginaw, but as a symbolic statement it could still “isolate limited English speaking citizens we all represent.”

Guerra argued it was a waste of taxpayer money to draft the bill and debate it in committee. “We should be ashamed to continue this waste,” she said prior to the vote.

The measure passed the House 62-46 vote, mostly along party lines. It now heads to the Michigan Senate for consideration.

Republican Reps. Chris Afendoulis of Grand Rapids Township, Thomas Albert of Lowell, Tommy Brann of Wyoming and David Maturen of Vicksburg voted against the bill. Democratic Reps. John Chirkun of Roseville, Scott Dianda of Calumet and LaTanya Garrett of Detroit voted for it.

Democrats proposed amendments that were rejected by the Republican majority, including one that appeared to poke fun at the language proposal by suggesting the state also standardize the use of the Oxford Comma and other forms of punctuation.

Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, read from the original middle English version of “The Canterbury Tales,” which sounds like a foreign language compared with modern English, to prove that language constantly evolves.

“This is a fundamentally anti-intellectual moment for this chamber,” LaGrand said. “If we start to be a country that shuns differences and that we do not welcome diversity, which has always been a strength, this is a dark moment for our republic.”

But Republican supporters argued the bill would benefit non-native English speakers by encouraging assimilation.

Michigan and the nation have long welcomed “people from around the globe who see this as a land of opportunity, who see this as a preferred location to raise their children, to find economic success,” said Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Midland.

“If that’s the motivation for coming to America, it does not make any sense for America or Americans to change,” he said. “You change.”