Civil-rights watchdogs put county on notice

Published 12:04 pm Friday, March 14, 2008

By Staff
Letter details opposition to English-only initiative
Staff Writer
Recent actions taken by the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners to curb illegal immigration at the county level have caused several civil-rights watchdog groups “great concern,” according to an attorney for the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU is one of the 15 signatories of the four-page letter outlining the concerns with the board’s moves over the past year to curb illegal immigration at the local level. The effort, led by commissioners Hood Richardson and Stan Deatherage, began in February 2007 with a mandate that signs posted on county buildings be in English only. The board has since met with an attorney who advised it on actions it could legally take to fight illegal immigration in the county. The board’s first move was to remove the Spanish-language option from county phone systems, which was deemed a civil-rights violation by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
On Feb. 8, 2007, commissioners voted 6-1 to “remove all signs that are written in foreign language posted on Beaufort County property unless the signs are posted as part of a state or federal mandate.”
At the board’s March 6 meeting, the board approved removing all automated phone systems from county phones, a response to DHHS’ claim that removing only the Spanish-language option was a civil-rights violation. Interpreters will still be on hand to assist callers who do not speak English, according to the motion approved by the board.
Parker said the motion “makes it clear that (commissioners) are trying to avoid the requirements of federal law.”
The letter states that not only are the board’s measures “bad public policy,” but, in the opinions of those who signed the letter, they are unconstitutional.
Also in February, commissioners passed a resolution asking the state to stop printing voter-registration forms in Spanish. In their letter, the civil-rights groups said the United States “does not require English literacy as a condition for naturalization for people over 50 or for those who have been in the U.S. for more than 20 years.”
Joyce McCloy, founder of the N.C. Coalition for Verified Voting, said that measure could restrict the voting rights of legal non-English-speaking residents while targeting illegal immigrants.
McCloy brought the board’s decision to the attention of Don Wright, general counsel for the State Board of Elections. In an e-mail response to McCloy’s inquiry, Wright wrote “that a state or local jurisdiction cannot eliminate Spanish-language voter registration forms. This is consistent with the 2007 opinion of legislative legal staff that advised the N.C. General Assembly that a then pending bill to eliminate Spanish language voter registration forms would violate federal law.”