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Rising number of Latinos spurs English language debate in Carroll County

Laws and LegislationIllegal ImmigrantsImmigrationColleges and Universities

Amid the quaint brick storefronts of Westminster's Main Street, Lily's Mexican Market sells Virgin of Guadalupe statues, sacks of dried beans and paddle-shaped cactus leaves. A mile away, the aisles of Las Palmeras grocery store are stocked with Salvadoran cheeses and pastries. A nearby Catholic church draws more than 200 people to a Spanish Mass each Sunday.

Mexican and Central American immigrants have flocked to Carroll County over the past decade, drawn by pastures and orchards that remind them of the rural villages in which they were raised. Some followed family members here; others sought to live among those who share their traditional values. Many say they felt welcome here, at least until a commissioner began a push to make English the county's official language.

"We support the economy here. We respect the laws. We pay rent. We pay taxes," said Gregoria Hernandez, who opened Lily's with her husband last year. "We're a fountain of business. Why would they not want us here?"

But the changing face — and lexicon — of Carroll County has some local leaders concerned. County Commissioner Haven Shoemaker proposed the official-language measure, an effort, he says, to be proactive.

"Wave after wave of immigrants have come to this country over the past few hundred years and they have assimilated under one language," said Shoemaker, who represents the county's eastern portion. "The latest wave has not been as willing to assimilate under the English language, and that's a problem."

While the measure would be largely symbolic — federal and state laws require government agencies to offer assistance to non-English speakers — some Latino immigrants and their allies say the proposal is a sign that the county does not welcome their presence.

Standing in front of a row of cowboy hats, a Spanish issue of Reader's Digest open before her, Hernandez explained in Spanish that she and her husband were drawn to Carroll County because they had family here and thought it would be a safe and wholesome area to raise their two children.

The Hernandez family is among the thousands of Latino immigrants who have chosen to make their homes in Carroll. Census figures show the Hispanic population, though still relatively small, has grown by more than 300 percent since 2000. The county's overall population has grown by about 10 percent during that period.

Advocates say the most recent figure — which shows about 4,600 Latino residents — represents just a fraction of the actual Hispanic population because those here illegally do not want to tip off immigration officials.

A decade ago, advocates say, young men harvesting crops, primarily migrant workers from Mexico, made up the majority of the county's Latino residents. Many decided to settle in Carroll County and returned with their wives and started families here. Soon they were persuading their siblings and cousins to come. Some came legally, but many did not, advocates say.

At the same time, immigrants from Central America, particularly El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, were arriving in Carroll County. Many left more established immigrant communities in Montgomery County, the District of Columbia and Baltimore, seeking the peace and stability of a rural area. This group, too, included documented and undocumented immigrants.

In between ringing up bunches of tiny bananas and phone cards at Las Palmeras, cashier Victoria Reyes said she spent three years working at a similar store in Towson before coming to Westminster. She and her husband, Salvadoran natives, wanted to raise their children in a quieter place, she said.

"It's more tranquil here," Reyes said. "Towson was very busy. Here it is very safe."

Elena Hartley says the number of young Latino families has grown significantly over the eight years she has run United Hands, a nonprofit devoted to helping immigrants.

"When I first arrived, I mostly saw men, working men. Then they started bringing their wives and children," she said. Now, during the Spanish Mass at St. John's Catholic Church in Westminster, "you see 60 little kids come up when the priest calls up children for the blessing. And now you see a lot of older people — they're bringing their mothers and fathers."

Some immigrants were drawn to Carroll by plentiful jobs at farms and wineries or in landscaping and construction, Hartley said. Others came because the cost of living is lower than in other counties. Many settled here because towns such as Taneytown, Manchester and Westminster felt comfortable and familiar, she said.

"Because these people are from small towns in their countries, here feels more like home," said Hartley. "They'll work in Baltimore, far away, but live here."

Lina Ocasio, who serves as a liaison to the Hispanic community at St. John's, said many parishioners were drawn to the area's traditional values.

"We are very family-oriented" Ocasio said. "Here it's safe for children and for themselves, too."

But while Carroll County's new Latino residents may share conservative values with their more established neighbors, many differ on a controversial topic: immigration.

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.

Among them is 28-year-old Elmer Gomez, who spoke almost no English when he arrived in this country eight years ago. The Salvadoran native takes classes at night, after his shift at a ball bearings factory. He estimates he'll finish his GED in another two years. Though he now speaks English fluently, he worries that the proposed law could create hardships for others.

In contrast, Adrian Barrera, a crew leader of the migrant workers at Baugher's Farm, says he supports the language proposal.

Barrera, 43, left his father's farm in Hidalgo, Mexico, in the early 1980s to join relatives in Texas. He spoke a little English when he arrived — words he had gleaned from grade-school classes and television — but pored over textbooks in the evenings until he became fluent.

Barrera, who said he became a U.S. citizen through an amnesty program, describes himself as a conservative Republican. And that, he says, is part of what drew him to Carroll County about 20 years ago.

"Whoever comes to this country should prepare," he said. "Everyone should speak English here."

Baltimore Sun reporter Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

julie.scharper@baltimoresun.com

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