Welcome to Michigan (in all languages)

By Kate Kooyman

When you arrive at my child’s school, the doors are locked. You press a button, and stand and wait until someone buzzes you in. That means I’m sometimes standing there with nothing to do but read the PTA pancake breakfast posters, or whatever happens to be taped to the windows that day.

Those notices and announcements are invariably in two languages (English and Spanish), and sometimes I read it in Spanish just to see how much I’ve retained since Freshman year. There could be more languages posted there, too. Sometimes when I wait to be buzzed in, I wait alongside parents who speak Kinyarwanda, Swahili, or Arabic.

At my kid’s school, we don’t think you should have to earn the right to know about pancakes, or half-days, or after-school care. We want you to know those things, regardless of whether you show you’ve “earned” it because you miraculously rushed to learn English immediately upon arrival. Mind you, most of these parents are prioritizing improving their English every day, making sacrifices that I’ll never know in order to learn the language (between their multiple minimum wage jobs). But in the meantime, we’d still like them to be able to eat pancakes with everyone else.

As a society, we’ve decided that ensuring critical information gets understood is important. We’ve learned that one person’s confusion can impact the whole community’s experience. One person’s flourishing can help all of us thrive. That’s why we have laws that ensure that certain information must be communicated well, regardless of English ability.

There’s an “English only” bill that’s likely to go to the governor’s desk in Michigan. I hope you’ll join me in asking Governor Snyder, who aims to be the nation’s most immigrant-friendly governor, to veto this bill.

The bill does nothing, really, to change existing practices in Michigan. Programs that are federally funded will still be required to provide “meaningful access” for those who have limited English, per existing federal law. (Side note: Some places in Michigan aren’t complying with this now, and it’s possible that this legislation would make it harder to provide the accountability and the money to ensure that they get with it. So, that would be a change.) The state will still be obliged to provide translation when people’s health, safety, or justice is at stake. So the legislation doesn’t seem to be an attempt to change our practices.

And the bill does nothing, really, to assert that English be protected and primary. Pretty much all of the business that our state does is in English already. All public records, public meetings, and official acts are in English. So the legislation isn’t trying to fix something that’s broken.

What the bill does do is send a loud and heartbreaking message to our newest neighbors. It tells them that they are not welcome here. It tells them to fend for themselves.

It tells them there’s a distinct “us” that they may never be part of in this state--because they are “them.”

This isn’t the Michigan that I want us to become.

Please join us in advocating for welcoming policies in Michigan, and defeating proposals that serve only to hurt and exclude.

  • If you’re in West Michigan, join a gathering at Treetops Collective to write postcards to Governor Snyder on March 8 at 4-6pm. We’ll gather for community, food, and friendship as we write short messages encouraging welcoming policies. See more details and RSVP on Facebook.
  • If you can’t come, host a gathering of your own. Click here to download a set of 10 postcards. Print up these ideas for what to say. Invite friends for snacks or drinks, and spend a moment advocating for a more welcoming Michigan.
  • By March 14, those postcards will be collected--you can drop them off locally at Treetops Collective (906 Division Ave South, Grand Rapids, MI 49507) or at the CRCNA’s Office of Social Justice (1700 28th St SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49508). Every postcard that’s collected before March 14 will be delivered to the governor.
  • If you only have a few minutes, you can send an email to your legislator and to the governor through this action alert.

For alerts and information about policies that impact immigrants, subscribe to the CRCNA’s Office of Social Justice immigration newsletter email list. Read an analysis of this bill and its potential impact from the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.


Rev. Kate Kooyman is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America, and works for the Christian Reformed Church's Office of Social Justice. She has worked on educating and organizing Christians on various issues, including immigration reform. She is a graduate of Calvin College and Western Theological Seminary. Treetops Collective is honored to have her serving as a board member, and thankful to partner with the Office of Social Justice on advocacy initiatives affecting our newest neighbors.