Gov. Tim Pawlenty waded into the national debate over immigration Tuesday, saying that Minnesota should consider making English its official state language.

Such a measure could spare governments translation costs, but impose a new level of difficulty on the state's immigrant population.

At a news conference outside the governor's residence, Pawlenty said that as the country becomes more diverse, some people might question which language to use in official documents. He said it might be helpful to clarify that the official language is English.

Spokesman Bruce Gordon said Pawlenty made the comments when asked about his support for so-called English-only measures, such as one recently approved in the northern suburb of Lino Lakes. Pawlenty's comments came shortly after a meeting with Chilean ambassador Arturo Fermandois. The two talked about investment partnerships between Minnesota and Chile, including a northeastern Minnesota mining venture involving Chilean companies.

The Republican governor, who is testing a possible run for president, didn't elaborate on his position or offer any new proposals. The Legislature doesn't convene until after he leaves office, which means any measure approved by legislators would fall squarely in the lap of the next governor.

About half of the nation's states have official English language designations on their books, including Iowa and North Dakota.

In late July, Lino Lakes became Minnesota's first city to adopt a resolution barring the use of city money to translate city documents or public meetings into another language. Critics said the measure was thinly veiled anti-immigration sentiment, but supporters said it reflected the tough economic reality of a cash-strapped community. The resolution contains several exceptions, mostly for health, public safety and education.

Governor candidates differ

With only a week before the gubernatorial primary, Pawlenty's comments caused an immediate stir among those vying to replace him.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the DFL endorsee, opposes such a proposal.

"Margaret believes our state should be a welcoming place for all Minnesotans," spokesman Matt Swenson said. "Our state should be a place where every Minnesotan can easily communicate with their local and state governments, as well as law enforcement and emergency personnel."

A spokesman for DFLer Matt Entenza said the candidate would not support the measure.

"Once again, Tim Pawlenty is putting presidential ambitions ahead of Minnesota," Entenza spokesperson Jeremy Drucker said. "Pandering to far-right-wing extremists won't bring Minnesota new jobs or better schools."

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer did not respond to a request for comment, but a month ago, the Delano state representative said he supports making English the state's official language.

In 2008, Emmer co-sponsored legislation to do so; it never had a hearing or a vote in the House. The bill would have declared: "English is the official language of the state of Minnesota. English is designated as the language for use by the state and local governments, for government officers and employees acting in the scope of their employment, and for government documents and records."

The bill also would have required all public agencies in the state to cooperate with federal immigration authorities and bar anyone from renting or selling a home to anyone whose immigration status was unverified.

Emmer said at the time that he co-sponsored the 2008 measure because his home county told him the cost of producing signs in multiple languages "was killing them." "But you have to make sure everybody has a fair opportunity to learn our English language, understand it and use that skill to understand where they are going," he said.

Other concerns

Katherine Fennelly, a University of Minnesota professor and expert on immigration, said Pawlenty's comment "demonstrates the popularity of statements that are negative about immigrants."

She's concerned that with English-only legislation, the state wouldn't print emergency information, which could create dangerous or even life-threatening situations. "Are we unable to afford to print emergency information in a language that's accessible?" Fennelly asked.

Vincent Martin, a Twin Cities immigration attorney, said English-only proposals overlook a key aspect of federal law: A person does not have to speak English to be a lawful, permanent resident of the United States.

"Yet once they are here, they could be confronted with an English-only system," he said. "What are they trying to accomplish with this?"

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288