California Elections : Prop. 63 Roots Traced to Small Michigan City : Measure to Make English Official Language of State Sprang From Concern Over Immigration, Population

Times Staff Writer

The origins of Proposition 63--the Nov. 4 ballot measure that would make English the official language of California--can be traced to this small resort city on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Without U.S. English, the national organization that helped to organize and finance the Proposition 63 campaign, it is unlikely that the initiative would have made it to the ballot.

And without Dr. John H. Tanton, an intense, 52-year-old ophthalmologist from Petoskey, it is doubtful that U.S. English would have existed.


Petoskey is an unlikely birthplace for a movement concerned with what Tanton, in a recent interview, called the “erosion of the English language” due to massive arrivals of non-English-speaking immigrants.

Only about 200 of Petoskey’s 6,100 residents are non-white, according to the 1980 U.S. Census, and almost all of them speak English.

But it was to Petoskey that Tanton, 22 years ago, brought his ophthalmologist’s skills and his conviction, developed in medical school, that “there is such a thing as the population problem and that it is an important barrier to our conservation efforts.”

Tanton worked first for Planned Parenthood and later for Zero Population Growth, of which he was national president from 1975-1977.

When he could not convince the ZPG board of directors that excessive immigration, both legal and illegal, was an important reason for the overpopulation problem, Tanton formed a new organization--the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), to lobby for tougher immigration laws and lower immigration quotas.

A few years later the ophthalmologist became convinced that still another organization was needed to combat “self-serving ethnic politicians” who were promoting bilingual education, bilingual ballots and other multilingual services in order to maintain “language ghettos” of non-English speakers who would vote as they were told.


So Tanton and S.I. Hayakawa, the semanticist and former Republican U.S. senator from California, formed U.S. English in 1983. Tanton is chairman of the board and Hayakawa is honorary chairman, as he is of the California English Campaign, official sponsors of Proposition 63.

U.S. English is one of the fastest growing citizen action groups in the nation. In less than four years it has picked up more than 200,000 dues-paying members (dues are $20 a year), about half of whom live in California.

U.S. English has attracted political conservatives, people who want to increase literacy in America and others, like Tanton, with conservationist and environmental backgrounds.

“There is a path” from organizations like Planned Parenthood and Zero Population Growth to concern about immigration and the English language, said Susan Weber, executive director of Zero Population Growth.

But it was not a path that all leaders of Zero Population Growth wanted to follow.

“We do support immigration reform, we don’t ignore the issue,” Weber said, “but it’s not one of our top priorities.”

She said it was “a very difficult issue--politically, it’s divisive.”

Weber also said Tanton and other leaders of FAIR and U.S. English “tend to focus on the United States and forget about the rest of the world, but, like it or not, the world population problem is going to come home to haunt us, in one form or another.”


Tanton agreed that overpopulation is a worldwide problem but said, “I don’t have any particular influence in Jakarta or New Dehli or Nairobi, but I can have some say in this country. I do think we have a responsibility to preserve these particular acres so there will be something left for those who come after us.”

Feared Racist Label

A former key staff member of Zero Population Growth, who asked not to be identified, said the organization’s directors turned down Tanton’s request to tackle the immigration issue because “they were uneasy about getting into ethnicity--they didn’t want to be called racist.”

Tanton and his allies “talk in very legitimate terms, about protecting our borders and saving the nation’s resources and so on,” the former staffer said, “but the trouble is, after you’ve heard them, you want to go home and take a shower.”

Fernando Oaxaca, chairman of the board of Coronado Communications, which owns KNSE, a Los Angeles-area Spanish-language radio station, said “the people behind U.S. English and FAIR are a bunch of crazies who came out of the environmental movement and think the environment is damaged by people, especially people different from themselves.”

Oaxaca, a Republican who was associate director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Ford Administration, said these people are “motivated by xenophobia and probably racism.”

But Roger Conner, executive director of FAIR and an ally of Tanton in Michigan environmental battles in the 1970s, said, “Many people in the environmental movement didn’t have the stomach to take on the immigration issue or the language issue, but John did.”


U.S. English is one of the projects of a Petoskey corporation called simply U.S., which serves as an umbrella-sponsor for Tanton’s many interests.

Environmental Interests

These include research into the reproductive habits of eagles and other “great birds of prey,” solid waste recycling, limited vision, and the possibility of raising native animals for food consumption in dry-land areas of New Mexico and East Africa. With all of this going on, Tanton still manages to devote three days to his ophthalmologic practice.

U.S. English raised $2.4 million last year, Tanton said, and additional money was raised for a legislative task force, which does political lobbying at both the state and federal levels.

Campaign finance records show that the California English Campaign received a $385,000 loan from the U.S. English Legislative Task Force last spring to help pay for the signature-gathering drive that resulted in placing Proposition 63 on the ballot.

An illustrious board of advisers, including author Saul Bellow, television newsman Walter Cronkite and heart surgeon Denton Cooley, reviews some of the organization’s printed material and helps to raise money and recruit new members.

However, last week the luster of this advisory group was dimmed somewhat when author and editor Norman Cousins resigned, stating that Proposition 63 might cause Latinos and other racial minorities to be “denigrated and demeaned.”


U.S. English supporters often talk about “avoiding another Canada” or another Belgium where language differences have caused continuing political disputes. Tanton has his colleagues believe that this problem can be avoided if the role of English is strengthened and the importance of other languages is diminished,

Common Bonds

“A nation has to have certain things in common,” said Jacques Barzun, author, educator and a member of the U.S. English Board of Advisers. “These include certain customs, a language and a historical tradition--and the historical tradition can’t be picked up without the language.”

But critics say the activities of U.S. English lead not to greater national unity and social cohesiveness but to strife and disharmony.

They contend that in such places as Dade County, Fla., and Monterey Park, Calif., where official English ordinances or resolutions already have been passed, race relations are worse than before.

Some opponents charge that the organization is anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner.

Jerry Tinker, an aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), pointed out that many of the leaders of U.S. English were also active in FAIR, which has worked hard to restrict immigration.

Tanton is board chairman of both groups. Gerda Bikales, executive director of U.S. English, was formally a FAIR staff member. Barnaby Zall is attorney for both organizations, as well as for federal political action committees affiliated with the two groups.


“Long before they took the garb of U.S. English, this was an anti-immigrant outfit,” Tinker said, “and their newsletters contained barely disguised racism.”

Tanton replied: “I’m disturbed that people toss these words around so lightly. . . . Instead of debating the issues, they call you a racist.”

Wants Open Discussion

“Basically the purpose of U.S. English is the same as it was for FAIR--to get this topic into open discussion. . . . I felt there shouldn’t be taboo topics that can’t be discussed by thinking people,” Tanton said.

But he acknowledged that by sponsoring Proposition 63, U.S. English has gone well beyond the discussion stage.

Tanton hopes that passage of Proposition 63 will stimulate similar efforts in other states and will lead eventually to a federal constitutional amendment declaring English to be the nation’s official language.

Hayakawa introduced such an amendment when he was in the U.S. Senate but it went nowhere, nor has similar legislation offered more recently by Sen. Steve Symms (R-Ida.) and Rep. Norman Shumway (R-Calif.).


“California can be a laboratory for the nation,” Tanton said, “to see if the constitutional amendment approach will work.”

U.S. English is strongly opposed to bilingual education, at least as it is offered currently in most parts of the country, on the grounds that it is ineffective and leaves large numbers of children, especially Spanish speakers, outside the American mainstream.

The organization wants more flexibility for local school districts to experiment with alternate bilingual education methods. Some U.S. English supporters favor a teaching approach known as structured immersion.

English Predominates

In this method, teachers employ English most of the time in the classroom, using the child’s native language only to solve especially serious problems.

But many bilingual educators say structured immersion is not much different from the old sink-or-swim approach to language instruction and predict it will lead to higher dropout rates among Latinos and other immigrant children.

U.S. English also hopes to get rid of bilingual ballots, but the federal Voting Rights Act requires that such ballots be made available in counties in which non-English speakers account for more than 5% of the population.


There are 10 such counties in California. Los Angeles County is not among them but does send Spanish language ballots to those who request them.

U.S. English leaders do not like foreign-language advertising but realize that attempts to stop it might bring them into conflict with the First Amendment.

“This is really a matter for the private business community to decide,” Tanton said, “but we would point out that it is one more sign of a trend that could bring us to a situation where we have major segments of the population who can’t talk to each other.”

When Stanley Diamond, a founding director of U.S. English and coordinator of the Proposition 63 campaign, was quoted by the Associated Press last December as saying Spanish-language advertising would be an issue in the campaign, he was chastised by other U.S. English leaders.

Drops the Issue

Diamond later said he had been misquoted and has not pressed the advertising issue during the campaign.

When Terry Robbins, former U.S. English coordinator and spokeswoman in Miami, Fla., tried to persuade Burger King and McDonalds not to print menus in Spanish, and also protested publication of Spanish-language real estate ads, she was removed from her organizational posts.


“She was just a difficult person to get along with,” Tanton said. “There was too much static and lightning, so we decided to part company.”

Other moves that U.S. English has made to “defend the public interest in the growing debate on bilingualism and biculturalism,” as the group’s official purpose is stated, include:

- Diamond asked the California Public Utilities Commission not to approve a Pacific Bell plan to provide information about billing, repairs and other services in Spanish as well as English.

- Earlier this year, U.S. English generated 5,000 letters protesting Pacific Bell’s publication of a Spanish-language Yellow Pages.

“Pacific Bell needs to be made aware of the American public’s concern about the erosion of English and its conviction that the Spanish Yellow Pages further reduce the incentive to learn our language,” the organization said in a letter to its California members.

But Pacific Bell has continued to publish the Paginas Amarillas.

Border Radio Stations

- The Federal Communications Commission was asked to investigate complaints from U.S. English members that not enough English-language radio broadcasting is available along the Texas-Mexico border.


The FCC found no basis for the complaints.

- U.S. English has asked the New York State Board of Regents to offer its university examinations only in English.

Some wonder why all this vigilance is needed at a time when English, American English in particular, has become the world’s dominant language.

In a public television series now running, it was pointed out that more Chinese now study English than there are people in the United States.

“The question is whether or not you see the camel’s nose under the tent,” Tanton answered. “One of the paradoxes is, as English seems to be making such inroads around the world, it also seems to be going backward in our own country.”

He continued: “If the goal of the leaders of the opposition is a bilingual, bicultural society (and Tanton believes it is), the way you get there is by a series of small, seemingly innocuous steps, leading to a situation where you have two official languages.

Sees Time to Act

“We have seen a whole series of steps leading to more division along language lines and we, in U.S. English, think the time has come to say, ‘That’s enough, this has gone far enough.’ ”


But opponents say the rapid growth of U.S. English is due to fear of massive illegal immigration, competition for jobs and the belief that aliens are responsible for the nation’s drug problems.

Some think the group’s appeal will decline if economic conditions continue to be relatively good.

“In hard economic times, we tend to have these nativist notions about immigrants,” said Tinker of Kennedy’s staff. “But when the economy is good, we don’t tend to blame the aliens.”