TransBorder Profile - ProEnglish

1601 North Kent Street, Suite 1100
 Arlington, VA 22209
 (571) 527-2813

ProEnglish is part of a closely linked network of “official English” and anti-immigration organizations that are based in the Washington, DC area and are involved in local and national campaigns to restrict immigration and to institute English as the official and only language for government business. 

A central figure of these groups is John Tanton, who was a founding director of ProEnglish and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Among the other groups in which Tanton, a former president in the 1970s of Zero Population Growth, are English First, Immigration Reform Law Institute, and Numbers USA.  As the principals of these groups readily acknowledge, the movements to restrict immigration and to restrict the use of languages other than English are closely connected organizationally and ideologically.

ProEnglish is national nonprofit organization, which was founded in 1994 under the name English Language Advocates and whose mission is “to protect English as our common language and to make it the official language of the United States.” ProEnglish boasts that it is “the nation's leading advocate of official English.”

“We work through the courts and in the court of public opinion,” says ProEnglish, “to defend English's historic role as America's common, unifying language, and to persuade lawmakers to adopt English as the official language at all levels of government”  

According to ProEnglish, “Having English as our official language simply means that for the government to act officially, it must communicate in English. It means the language of record is the English language, and that no one has a right to demand government services in any other language.” While ProEnglish contends that it is not an “English only” group since it encourages people to learn and speak other languages, it does insist that employers, both in the public and private sectors, have the right and obligation to stipulate that employees speak only English while on the job.

ProEnglish is dedicated to “providing pro-bono legal assistance to public and private agencies facing litigation or regulatory actions over language."

ProEnglish works with the U.S. Congress and state referenda, as well as in the courts to defend the role of English as our common language.  Accordingly, we are active in several areas of legislation and referenda, including:

Its areas of work include:

·         “Supporting state initiatives to ban failed ‘bilingual education’ programs, which deny students the right to learn in English.”

·         “Lobbying for a federal statue or constitutional amendment declaring English our official language.”

·         “Protecting the rights of employers to implement English-on-the-job policies.”

·         “Preserving the long-standing tradition that English should be required for immigration.”

·         “Calling for an end to bilingual ballots.”

·         “Opposing efforts to admit as states territories such as Puerto Rico that have another official language.”

·         “Opposing mandatory translation of official documents and voting ballots into languages other than English (except for emergency services).”

Its recent work includes:

·         Organized a coalition including such right-wing groups as Eagle Forum and Concerned Women of America, ProEnglish sent President Bush a letter urging him to order the Department of Transportation to require Mexican truck drivers to demonstrate a proficiency in English before they will be permitted to drive in the United States. According to ProEnglish executive director McAlpin, the federal government “is willing to put U.S. motorists at risk of injury or death to let Mexican heavy truck drivers who cannot read highway warning signs into the United States.”

·         Supported Nashville English First with a $19,000 grant to promote an English only measure on a country referendum.  Nashville’s mayor had vetoed the measure, saying it was unconstitutional, unnecessary, and mean-spirited. If the referendum is approved by voters on Nov. 4, 2008, it will make Nashville the first large city to implement such a language law.

·         Backed a family-owned restaurant near the Navajo Reservation that required employees to speak English not Navajo while working.  ProEnglish says it has been at the forefront of efforts to support employers who insist on an English only rule for workers and to oppose the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in its “renegade efforts” to oppose English only rules as discriminatory and a violation of the 1965 Civil Rights Act.

·         Supporting the National Language Act introduced by Cong. Peter King (R-NY) and Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), and the English Unity Act in the House of Representatives.

Members of its board of directors are: Bob Park (chair), Clifford Colwell, Phil Kent, Leo Sorenson, and John Tanton.  ProEnglish also has a national advisory board, whose members include Gerda Bikales, a ProEnglish founder. K.C. McAlpin is ProEnglish’s executive director.

As founder of Arizonans for Official English, Bob Park, a 30-year veteran of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, led the effort in Arizona to defend an official language initiative that was approved by Arizona voters in the late 1980s but was later overturned in federal court, striking a blow at the “English only” movement as it was then commonly described.

Sorensen was the cofounder of E Pluribus Unum, an organization dedicated to “national unity,” and he was a leading proponent of California’s Proposition 63, which made English the official language of the state through a constitutional amendment.

Bikales was the first executive director of U.S. English, the English advocacy group founded by John Tanton and the late U.S. Senator S.I. Hayakawa, and served on its original board of directors. Before joining U.S. English, Bikales was on the staff of FAIR.  According to Bikales, the surge in the number of non-English speakers in the United States has “stressed the cultural carrying capacity of our schools to the breaking point. If we do not wish to permanently turn our educational system into an engine for churning out members of a new multinational state who share neither language nor values, we must markedly slow down immigration."

Tanton also serves on the board of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization he founded in 1979. Tanton directs the Social Contract Press and U.S. Inc., which is a funding organization for official English and anti-immigration organizations and has a $2 million annual budget. ProEnglish receives U.S. Inc. support.

At least two of ProEnglish’s founders – John Tanton and Gerda Bikales -- formed part of a secretive strategy group called WITAN (taken from the Old English term witenagemot, or council of wise men to advise the king) that attempted to set out a common agenda for the anti-immigration, official English, national unity, and population-control movements. Another member was prominent ecologist Garrett Hardin, author of the influential "The Tragedy of the Commons" essay. Hardin has argued that immigration flows tax the "carrying capacity" of receiving societies. Hardin has argued for the construction of a 2,000-mile electronic fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

ProEnglish says that it has some 50,000 donors. In addition to individual donors, the organization has received funding in recent years from the F.M. Kirby Foundation and the Scaife Family Foundation.

ProEnglish is not alone in its national work to promote English as the official language in government and at the workplace. Its main competitor is U.S. English, a group founded by John Tanton in 1983.

As Tanton recounted in an interview with In These Times, the language movement emerged from the anti-immigration movement that was headed by FAIR. As Christopher Shayes wrote:

Notes from a 1982 FAIR board meeting report that Tanton was “very concerned that FAIR has acquired only 4,000 real members in three years, and believes it is time to change our methods.” Crisscrossing the country, Tanton found little interest in his conservation-based arguments for reduced immigration, but kept hearing the same complaint. “‘I tell you what pisses me off,’” Tanton recalls people saying. “‘It’s going into a ballot box and finding a ballot in a language I can’t read.’ So it became clear that the language question had a lot more emotional power than the immigration question.”

Tanton tried to persuade FAIR to harness this “emotional power,” but the board declined. So in 1983, Tanton sent out a fundraising letter on behalf of a new group he created called U.S. English. Typically, Tanton says, direct mail garners a contribution from around 1 percent of recipients. “The very first mailing we ever did for U.S. English got almost a 10 percent return,” he says. “That’s unheard of.” John Tanton had discovered the power of the culture war.

The success of U.S. English taught Tanton a crucial lesson. If the immigration restriction movement was to succeed, it would have to be rooted in an emotional appeal to those who felt that their country, their language, their very identity was under assault. ‘Feelings,’ Tanton says in a tone reminiscent of Spock sharing some hard-won insight on human behavior, ‘trump facts.’”

After a public dispute in 1988 about Tanton’s racism based on a 1986 memo he wrote, Tanton and other like-minded members of U.S. English like Bikales left English First and later went on to found ProEnglish. In the confidential memo, Tanton wrote: “How will we make the transition from a dominant non-Hispanic society with a Spanish influence to a dominant Spanish society with a non-Hispanic influence? ... As Whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion? ... We're building in a deadly disunity. All great empires disintegrate, we want stability.”

English First says it is “the nation's oldest, largest citizens' action group dedicated to preserving the unifying role of the English language in the United States. Founded in 1983 by the late Senator S.I. Hayakawa, an immigrant himself, U.S. English now has 1.8 million members nationwide.” While Hayakawa was indeed a founder, the English First history of its founding eliminates mention of Tanton.

As James Crawford in his book Hold Your Tongue observed: “[The memo’s} author was Dr. John Tanton, an ophthalmologist from Petoskey, Michigan, and a "cofounder" of U.S. English, along with S. I. Hayakawa. In reality, it was Tanton who had approached the senator with the idea, the organizational acumen, and the big donor contacts. Hayakawa agreed to serve in a ceremonial capacity, signing direct-mail appeals and op-ed articles and making occasional public appearances. As chairman, Tanton held the reins of U.S. English from the beginning. He handpicked the staff, presided over the board, and set policy directions, while keeping a low profile that enabled him to continue his medical practice part-time and to focus on big-picture questions that preoccupied him. Of the latter, the most pressing was what he termed ‘the Latin onslaught.’”

A less prominent English-only organization is English First, which is a project of the English First Foundation. Both U.S. English and English First are clearly situated on the political right, but each organization has its own approach. ProEnglish, unlike its counterparts, explicitly links language restriction, immigration restriction, cultural supremacy, and national unity issues.
- Tom Barry, August 21, 2008

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