House votes to make English official Michigan language

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

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, sparking objections from Democrats and a mocking proposal to also standardize punctuation rules.

Supporters said the bill would largely “codify” existing practice and celebrate a shared language, but critics bemoaned it as a divisive change that could 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, including what he sarcastically called the “vast right-wing jurisdictions of Massachusetts and California.”

The bill “acknowledges a fundamental truth” that English already is the official language in Michigan, Barrett said. “I agree we’re a very diverse state, 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 language requirement would not apply if it conflicted with federal law or if public safety warranted the use of other languages.

“This bill does nothing. It doesn’t change anything,” said Rep. Vanessa Guerra, D-Saginaw. But as symbolic statement, she said, it could still “isolate limited English speaking citizens we all represent.”

Guerra argued it was a waste of taxpayer money to even draft the bill and debate it in committee. “We should be ashamed to continue this waste,” she told her colleagues 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, Martin Howrylak of Troy and David Maturen of Vicksburg voted against the bill. Democratic Reps. John Chirkun of Roseville, Scott Dianda of Calumet, LaTanya Garrett of Detroit and Robert Kosowski of Westland voted for it.

“We’re not stepping on toes. We’re not preventing rights. We’re not turning people away,” said Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, who co-sponsored the bill. “We are simply saying English is our common language here in Michigan, and that’s what we’re reflecting in state law.”

The House took up the measure unexpectedly Thursday afternoon, prompting complaints from Democrats who were caught off guard and requested a break in the session to prepare for the debate.

They proposed a series of amendments that were rejected by the Republican majority, including one that poked fun at the language proposal by suggesting the state also standardize the use of the Oxford Comma and other punctuation.

“We should be willing to be nothing less than thorough in our desire to enshrine the English language into statute in such a way that does not succumb to mediocrity,” said Rep. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor.

Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, spoke to his colleagues in what appeared to be a foreign language before explaining that he was reading from the original middle English version of “The Canterbury Tales,” noting 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 them to learn a language that would help them become productive members of society.

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-Williams Township.

“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.”