Advocates for the immigrants say most Latinos in the county are not here legally, although no one has data. The illegal immigrants know they are taking a chance, activists say, but believe they are making the best choice for their families.

Members of Carroll's Board of Commissioners say they strongly oppose illegal immigration. Richard Rothschild, who, like the other four commissioners, is a Republican, says the state's Democratic leaders have perpetuated a notion of Maryland being a "sanctuary state" for illegal immigrants. He has spoken out against a proposed state law that would allow students brought here illegally as children to pay in-state tuition at public colleges.

"They're coming here now to our country to exploit us. They exploit our social services. They exploit our generosity," said Rothschild, who represents the southwest corner of the county. "Don't sneak across our borders, exploit our social services and then expect to be welcomed with a red carpet by the government."

Rothschild believes that legal immigrants are eager to learn English and assimilate while their illegal counterparts are interested only in "exploiting our ... economy and going back to their country of origin."

Rothschild, who favors making English the county's official language, said such a law would send "a subtle message" that illegal immigration is not welcome.

Shoemaker, the bill's author, said his legislation is based on similar ordinances enacted in Frederick and Queen Anne's counties, as well as in 31 states.

Shoemaker and Rothschild say they've heard stories from another jurisdiction, which they did not name, in which officials were forced to pay to translate zoning protest letters that had been written in Armenian. They said they were not trying to target Latinos, though they make up the vast majority of the county's non-English speakers.

Shoemaker said the ordinance would establish English as the official language for dealing with the county government, although some services, such as fire and police, would be exempt. He said the law would not curtail foreign language instruction in schools or require people to speak English in their homes or businesses.

"In the comfort of their own homes, they can speak German, Farsi, Swahili, Spanish or whatever they want," he said.

The Carroll County commissioners have scheduled an Oct. 30 public hearing on the proposal to make English the official language. The hearing will be at 7 p.m. at the New Windsor Community Building, 1100 Green Valley Road.

It is unclear what, if any, effect such a law would have on services for those who do not speak English. State officials say federal laws require that entities receiving federal funds, including local governments, "take reasonable steps" to help people who do not speak English. And a 2002 Maryland law requires local governments to provide translators and translate key documents.

But even a symbolic law sends a message that those who do not speak English are not welcome, Hartley says.

"As Hispanics living in the United States, we know English is the official language. We're not trying to change that," she said. A Peruvian native, Hartley learned to speak fluent English in the 20 years she has lived in Maryland.

Hartley says Carroll's government provides few services for Latinos. At United Hands, she and another employee work part-time, translating at doctor appointments and teacher meetings and helping students apply for college. She says she has stopped aggressively promoting the nonprofit because she is overwhelmed by the requests for help.

Hartley said many of her clients want to learn English and many do, but some lack the time to take classes.

"They want to learn English, but their kids are hungry. They work long hours at two jobs," she said.

Becki Maurio, who directs adult education programs at Carroll Community College, says about 85 percent of the approximately 300 people who enroll in classes in English as a second language each year are Latinos.

The classes are funded by federal and state grants and are free, Maurio said. The grants require that the college offer the classes to anyone, regardless of immigration status, she said.

A morning class caters to people who work at restaurants, while evening classes are filled with workers coming from shifts at construction or welding jobs. One class is geared to young children and their mothers, preparing toddlers for school while their mothers learn basic English.

While participants often arrive with little education, Maurio says many have flourished in the English program, going on to obtain their GED certificates at the community college.