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Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a champion of Utah taking its place in the global economy, finds himself in an awkward position after shutting down a state-owned online information site because it is in Spanish.
Huntsman's spokesman Mike Mower says the site will remain down until the governor's legal counsel can determine if its translations of basic state information violate a 2000 Utah law that makes English the state's official language.
But critics say Huntsman overreacted to a xenophobic backlash that followed the recent visit of Mexican President Vicente Fox and that continues to be fueled by the immigration reform debate.
Two weeks ago, the state launched http://www.espanol.utah. gov, a Spanish-language companion to the state's informational Web site http://www.utah.gov. The Spanish-language site offered 10 pages of information on taxes, health services, driver licences, and work-force services selected from the state's 400-page Web site.
But within days, callers complained to the governor's office that the site violated Utah's law making English the state's official language. The Spanish-language site was quickly taken down until its content can be reviewed, said Mower.
Neither http://www.utah.gov nor its Spanish-language counterpart are supported with taxpayer money. "We absorbed the cost of this project," said Hope Miller, spokeswoman for Utah Interactive, which maintains the state Web site. "It did not cost the state of Utah anything."
Utah Interactive collects transaction fees from businesses and individuals that use the service, she said, and the Spanish-language version was helpful because it made the site useful to more customers.
Michael Clara, Utah Republican Hispanic Assembly vice chairman, said the controversy about the state's Spanish-language Web site "stems from the roots of bigotry."
"It's sad that our governor's office succumbs to these extreme views," Clara said. "We have a governor who was an international trade ambassador. The [Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints] sends missionaries all over the world. Salt Lake City is an international place."
The governor, in fact, greeted Fox in Spanish, Clara said.
But Phyllis Sears, chairwoman of the Citizens Council on Illegal Immigration, says the complaints about the Spanish language Web site are coming from citizens who are increasingly sensitive to the problems of immigration. "Most people recognize immigration is not bad. But immigration without assimilation, both in language and in culture, could be a terrible disaster for this nation," Sears said. "That's what they are protesting."
State Rep. Mark Wheatley, one of two Latinos in the Legislature, said the governor's response "is an overreaction. Particularly, when you are talking about information on safety, health and paying taxes."
The law allows translations in the case of health and safety issues, for tourism and economic-development promotion, or if required by federal law.
Wheatley said the complaints came out of misguided fear and insecurity about the decline of English-speaking culture in the face of immigration. "We keep talking about a global economy - we need to take an active part in learning to speak other languages. It won't take away from being an American."
In his 2004 election campaign, Huntsman promoted an economic-development plan that stressed cultural diversity and Utah's rapidly growing Latino population.
"Utah must embrace this diversity and grow stronger because of it," Huntsman said in his plan. "This added diversity can provide numerous benefits for Utah, but we must recognize that it will also require additional resources and expenses [e.g. 'English as a second language' programs]."
A decision on the Web site is expected in about two weeks. As for the law itself, Mower said, "English is the official language of the state of Utah, and we have no intentions of changing that."