Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Town With No Identity Fights to Make English Its Official Language

Photo by Paul D'Amato for the NYT

Published: August 5, 2007
New York Times Magazine

When I first met with Judy Sigwalt and her fellow village trustee Paul Humpfer this past April, they were, understandably, feeling assured, if not emboldened. A few weeks earlier, with the endorsement of the two local newspapers, they were elected to their village board on the platform that their town, Carpentersville, Ill., should do everything in its power to discourage illegal immigrants from settling there. They vowed to pass a local ordinance that would penalize landlords that rented to illegal aliens and businesses that hired them. They also pledged to make English the official language of the village, which would mean discontinuing the practice of printing various notices — including building-code violations and the monthly newsletter — in both English and Spanish. The third candidate on their slate also won, giving them a majority on the board. Sigwalt and Humpfer considered their election a mandate. Indeed, many in this village consider them heroes. Their supporters wear buttons that read, “Illegal Means Illegal,” and: “I’m tired. Are you? Ask Me Why!” with a sickly looking bald eagle wrapped in the American flag.

...It’s in places like Carpentersville where we may be witnessing the opening of a deep and profound fissure in the American landscape. Over the past two years, more than 40 local and state governments have passed ordinances and legislation aimed at making life miserable for illegal immigrants in the hope that they’ll have no choice but to return to their countries of origin. Deportation by attrition, some call it. One of the first ordinances was passed in Hazleton, Pa., and was meant to bar illegal immigrants from living and working there. It served as a model for many local officials across the country, including Sigwalt and Humpfer. On July 26, a federal judge struck down Hazleton’s ordinance, but the town’s mayor, Lou Barletta, plans to appeal the decision. “This battle is far from over,” he declared the day of the ruling. States and towns have looked for other ways to crack down on illegal immigrants. Last month, Prince William County in northern Virginia passed a resolution trying to curb illegal immigrants’ access to public services. Waukegan, another Illinois town, has voted to apply for a federal program that would allow its police to begin deportation charges against those who are here illegally.

A week after the Senate failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform, Arizona’s governor, Janet Napolitano, signed into law an act penalizing businesses that knowingly hire undocumented immigrants. “One of the practical effects of this failure” to enact national immigration reform, Napolitano wrote to the Congressional leadership, “is that Arizona, and states across the nation, must now continue to address this escalating problem on their own.” Admittedly, the constitutionality of many of these new laws is still in question, and some of the state bills and local ordinances simply duplicate what’s already in force nationally. But with Congress’s inability to reach an agreement on an immigration bill, the debate will continue among local officials like those in Carpentersville, where the wrangling often seems less about illegal immigration than it does about whether new immigrants are assimilating quickly enough, if at all. In Carpentersville, the rancor has turned neighbor against neighbor. Once you scrape away the acid rhetoric, though, there’s much people actually agree on — but given the ugliness of the taunts and assertions, it’s unlikely that will ever emerge.

Carpentersville is without a center. It has no downtown. It has no clear identity. Forty miles northwest of Chicago, Carpentersville is a bit too far to be a commuter town and not distant enough to be a self-contained village. The town, which sprawls over seven and a half square miles, has grown without much planning, and feels less like a suburb than it does an adventure in navigation. The languid Fox River, which cuts through its midsection, is what orients. East of the river and west of the river have clear connotations....

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