Feb 15, 2022 - News

Efforts underway to unlock Iowa's "English-only" law

Illustration of a speech balloon with a lock inside it, which unlocks.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Immigrant rights advocates are calling on Iowa legislators to revise the state's "English-only" law, which they say has hampered pandemic recovery.

Driving the news: A bill introduced in the Legislature last month would amend the law to allow state and local governments to use English or "any other language deemed necessary" to achieve its purpose.

Why it matters: The heightened awareness about the law's consequences comes at a time when people of color are experiencing health and economic disparities, from pay losses to higher risks of COVID-19 complications.

  • Immigrant and refugee communities have been disproportionately impacted because of significant language barriers to accessing information over the last two years, Erica Johnson, director of Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice (IMMJ), told Axios.

Flashback: English was declared Iowa's official language in a 2002 bill signed by former Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack, who's now the U.S. secretary of agriculture. While largely symbolic, the law requires all official documents to be in English.

  • Supporters said the act is similar to laws in dozens of states and encourages assimilation.

State of play: Iowa collaborated with dozens of organizations last year to address racial health disparities.

  • The state Department of Human Rights is also translating COVID-19 information in multiple languages.

Yes, but: Communications with groups that have limited English proficiency has been inconsistent across state agencies and local governments, especially during the pandemic, Johnson said.

  • Easing restrictions of the law would help reduce the barriers, she said.

Of note: The law is also at the center of an ongoing voting rights lawsuit filed against Iowa in October by the League of United Latin American Citizens.

What's next: The bill must pass a committee by Friday to meet a legislative deadline.

  • Sen. Jason Schultz (R-Schleswig), who was assigned to lead a subcommittee on the bill, told Axios this week that he doesn't plan to call a meeting on it.
  • IMMJ has issued a legislative action alert, urging supporters to contact their state lawmaker.

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Des Moines.

More Des Moines stories