'Official-English' push in Lino Lakes tied to alleged anti-immigration front

Dave Roeser
Lino Lakes City Council member Dave Roeser supports a city ordinance that declares English as the city's official language. Roeser says the measure will save money by prohibiting the local government from translating documents and meetings into different languages.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

The Lino Lakes City Council stands by its decision last week to adopt English as the city's official language, insisting that the measure was fueled by budgetary decisions -- and not the current debate over illegal immigration.

But the national advocacy group that helped officials in the northern Twin Cities suburb write the resolution is tied to other organizations that call for a cap on federal immigration levels.

The Arlington, Va.-based ProEnglish bills itself as the nation's "leading advocate of official English." It was founded by a controversial activist named John Tanton, a retired ophthalmologist from Michigan who has pushed to curtail the level of immigration into the United States.

Tanton has helped start groups known as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, NumbersUSA, and the conservative think tank, Center for Immigration Studies.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Tanton's behind-the-scenes involvement on all those fronts prompted the Southern Poverty Law Center to dub him "the puppeteer" of the modern anti-immigration movement. But that sentiment does not appear in any of ProEnglish's literature, said Heidi Beirich, director of research at the law center.

Beirich said Tanton has multiple strategies that include anti-immigration and English-only groups.

"He has a whole coterie of organizations that he has founded or funds, whose whole purpose is to make sure this country doesn't have more and more non-English speaking, brown-skinned people in it," she said.

"There is a limit to the number of people we can support ... in terms of resources that need to be used."

The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified one of Tanton's organizations --- the Federation for American Immigration Reform -- as a hate group.

ProEnglish is a project of Tanton's foundation, U.S. Inc., which has annual expenses of about $3.6 million, according to the group's most recent available federal tax disclosure.

Tanton disputes the center's findings. He said he's not against legal immigration, and is largely concerned about the strain that massive immigration puts on the country's resources.

"We think there is a limit to the number of people we can support, as a concept of carrying capacity. If you exceed the carrying capacity, in terms of resources that need to be used, you're going to get yourself into big trouble," he said.

Yet Tanton has made some controversial statements revealing concerns over who the United States allows through its borders. He cautions that American culture could be at stake if European-Americans become the minority. He once warned of a "Latin onslaught."

Some people in Lino Lakes share such views. At the recent meeting where the City Council approved the English-only policy, some supporters complained that English was being squeezed out by foreign languages.

ProEnglish said Tanton is not involved with the group's day-to-day operations, but remains on the board.

One of the most high-profile cases involving ProEnglish was in Nashville. The group financially supported the campaign to make English the official language of that city. It would have been the largest U.S. city to approve such a measure, but voters rejected it at the ballot last year.

In Lino Lakes, ProEnglish entered the scene only after the local press reported that City Council member Dave Roeser was considering the measure.

"He had already introduced the [resolution], but we worked with him as far as language, talking points, and things he needed to learn more about official English," said Jayne Cannava, ProEnglish's executive director.

Cannava said her group also supplied a model ordinance that the Lino Lakes city attorney used to help craft its resolution. It forbids the government from translating ordinances, meetings and their minutes into other languages, although there are several exceptions. ProEnglish has also discussed the possibility of finding Lino Lakes legal help if someone sues the city over its new policy.

ProEnglish doesn't have an official position on immigration. But Cannava said once immigrants are in the United States, they should learn English so they can excel. On the ProEnglish website, Minnesotans can send an electronic form letter to state representatives and their city officials to urge them to pass similar measures.

Roeser said he didn't know anything about ProEnglish's ties to Tanton's other groups -- or his controversial message.

"I'm just shocked that this organization would have any ties to anybody like that," Roeser said. "It's news to me. And this had nothing to do with immigration. And if anything, I'm in favor of immigration. I'm the offspring of immigrants myself."

Michele Garnett McKenzie, advocacy director of the Minneapolis-based Advocates for Human Rights, said the Lino Lakes City Council may have genuinely wanted to trim future costs from its budget by passing the measure. But she said ProEnglish, in assisting the local leaders, succeeded in a different motive.

"It builds into a greater strategy that has nothing to do with saving money in Lino Lakes. It just helps this overall strategy of deportation by attrition -- to make it more unpleasant for immigrants, whether they're legal or not documented, to live in the U.S.," said McKenzie.

Since the Lino Lakes passage, Roeser said he's heard from three city officials from other Minnesota communities looking to introduce similar measures. He declined to say which cities have contacted him.

At least one state lawmaker said the Lino Lakes decision has convinced him that that there is momentum for similar English-language measures at the state level. State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said he will re-introduce a bill declaring English the official language of state government.

"I think what you're seeing in Lino Lakes is the very frustration that you're seeing in Arizona," Ingebrigtsen said. "They're finally saying, 'You know what? We're going to do something ourselves.' And is it setting the stage? I think it is, yes."

But in Lino Lakes, the issue remains divisive. While a handful of Minnesotans e-mailed the city to say they would boycott the town's businesses, many more applauded the city's action. One person wrote: "I pray you are just the beginning of 'our' fight to reclaim America."