County Councilman Jerry Walker plans to introduce a bill at Monday night's council meeting that would declare English the official language of Anne Arundel County.
The Gambrills Republican said the bill is the first in a series he plans to press that will attempt to stem illegal immigration locally. The bill, co-sponsored by Walker's three Republican colleagues, would require that all official county documents, communications and agreements be in English.
"I wanted to make a statement of some kind to let folks know we're not a sanctuary county," said Walker. "If you're here illegally, go where you're welcome. You're not welcome here."
The bill appears largely symbolic, as it contains language that would allow several exceptions. If passed, the bill would not prevent the county from continuing to distribute information in foreign languages "to protect the rights of victims of crime and criminal defendants, to protect public health and safety, to teach English to non-native speakers and promote trade and tourism in the county."
Kim Propeack, director of community organizing and political action at Casa de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group, said Walker's bill probably would have little impact.
"When you think about county services that are only county-funded, what are you talking about, trash collection? Do you really want people to not understand garbage collection rules?"
According to county officials, the county provides various translation services, which Walker concedes would not be affected by his bill. The county Health Department, for example, employs staff as translators at a cost to the county of $83,474 a year.
The county Police Department pays about $1,000 a month for its communication service, which assists with interpreting for non-English-speaking callers. The department also prints fliers in foreign languages. The Fire Department spends about $1,200 annually for public education safety materials in other languages.
"I realize some things are federally mandated," said Walker. "There's not really a thing we can do about that."
A spokesman for John R. Leopold, who has also attempted to change rules relating to immigrants, said the county executive is reviewing the bill.
In 2007, Leopold signed an executive order preventing the county from doing business with anyone who employs illegal immigrants. In 2008, the county detention center began checking prisoners' immigration status with federal authorities, resulting in several deportations. In 2010, the county joined the federal Secure Communities program, which employs fingerprint identification using federal databases, giving law enforcement officials the ability to quickly identify illegal immigrants.
Councilman John J. Grasso, a Glen Burnie Republican, said the county should not use taxpayer dollars to provide translation services.
"We're accountable to get someone on the phone and put them with an interpreter at the taxpayers' expense," said Grasso. "We never asked them to come over here. Why should the taxpayers have to pay for them? The majority of the people in this country speak English, so for the illegals to come over here and think we should speak their language, it's downright insane. You come to America, you learn the language. Anybody who's a real American will agree."
As he campaigned for a seat on the council in 2010, Walker said the issue of illegal immigration was one that residents voiced frequently as a concern. Walker said immigrants should be judged by the standard of his great-grandfather, who came from Greece in the early 1900s to Ellis Island, settled in New York City, found work shining shoes, eventually learned English and became a business owner.
"He didn't speak English, but he came here and assimilated," said Walker. "Everybody should do the same, regardless of where they're from."
Thirty-one states have passed laws designating English as their official language, said Robert Vandervoort, executive director of ProEnglish, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit that urges governments to designate English as the official language.
"It helps to clarify the common language of our country," Vandervoort said. "Especially since America has such a rich tradition of being a melting pot. There are hundreds of languages that are spoken in homes, and we think that having an official language to do government work in would be very helpful in letting people know English is the language that we're all expected to know and work with."
Efforts to declare English the official language began in the 1970s as multiculturalism and bilingualism took root, said Vandervoort. In recent years, efforts have intensified at the local level as lawmakers have tried to affect the national immigration debate.
Maryland has not passed "official English" legislation. Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, has pushed unsuccessfully for similar legislation in the General Assembly. At the federal level, similar bills are pending in the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Councilman Chris Trumbauer, an Annapolis Democrat, responded, "No me gusta" — Spanish for "I don't like it" — when asked about Walker's bill.
"I don't understand the need for it, and I'm not sure what it would seek to accomplish," Trumbauer said. "Would it disallow us from printing things in different languages where it might be helpful to do so? It doesn't seem like an issue that the county needs to address right now."
Councilman Jamie Benoit expressed similar concerns.
"I don't know that it accomplishes anything," said Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat. "I don't think a bill like this is going to encourage people who don't speak it to jump out of bed and learn to speak English."