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'English-only' and the fight for Frederick's character

The Frederick English-only debate is all about how the county views itself.

The debate about whether to repeal Frederick County's English-only ordinance appears finally to have arrived at some common ground. Both those who see it as necessary to preserve the Frederick way of life and those who consider it divisive and intolerant readily concede that as a practical matter, whether it stays or goes makes virtually no difference whatsoever.

Before the law went into effect, Frederick conducted its business in English, and it would continue to do so if the 2012 ordinance was repealed. The law does not require anyone to learn English, nor does it actually prevent the county government from producing documents and services in other languages. The ordinance includes health and public safety exceptions, and assorted federal and state laws mandate accommodations to those with limited English proficiency that trump whatever law Frederick chooses to pass. Backers of the law call it a cost-saving measure, but evidence of that is scant. Even if we accept the widely cited (though thinly sourced) estimate that the law saves the county $250,000 a year, that amounts to less than 0.005 percent of Frederick's annual operating budget.

A sponsor of the repeal effort, County Councilwoman Jessica Fitzwater, argues that the law marks Frederick as a place that is unwelcoming to outsiders and that ultimately, that's bad for business, but it's not clear that the law has actually dissuaded any businesses from coming to the county or made it more difficult to recruit workers. Frederick County continues to grow, and in the period of 2010-2013, the most recent for which such statistics are available, about a quarter of that growth was in the county's Hispanic population. Even so, only about 1.6 percent of households lack someone over the age of 14 who speaks English "very well," according to the Census Bureau.

If the status of the ordinance isn't a matter of tremendous practical import for the county, it has certainly stirred plenty of passion. A public hearing on the repeal effort lasted three hours (and was, the Frederick News-Post wryly reported, translated into American Sign Language). In as much as the debate is focused on how the county projects itself to the outside world, it really seems to be about how the county views itself. Is it the quiet, rural gateway to Western Maryland, or is it the increasingly cosmopolitan commuter-rail suburb of Washington, D.C.?

The reality is, it is rapidly becoming the latter. Indeed, its emergence as a major metropolitan county is the reason why the repeal effort has gained steam. Three years ago, the county had a commission government, comprised of five Republicans. Now it has a county council with four Republicans and three Democrats, plus a Democratic county executive. It is simply a more diverse place than it once was, not just in terms of race or ethnicity but also in outlook on the world.

The English-only measure was an attempt to draw a symbolic line in the sand against that change. "It sets the tone," then-County Commission President Blaine Young said at the time the ordinance was passed. He proclaimed that his intent was to make Frederick "the most unfriendly county in the state of Maryland to illegal aliens," a distinction he assured that Frederick would wear as "a badge of honor." What it accomplished, in the view of the News-Post's editorial board, was to reinforce an "outdated view of Frederick County as a racist, isolationist backwater full of corn stalk chewin', uneducated, rural hicks."

(This was not the most pointed part of the News-Post's endorsement of the English-only repeal, but it is perhaps the most quotable for a general audience; the best bits are all in Spanish.)

Some are still beating the drums of alarmism. Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, who has made a career out of being Maryland's answer to Arizona's famous (or infamous, take your pick) Sheriff Joe Arpaio, opined this week on WYPR's Maryland Morning that "The U.S. is about one language, we are one culture" and went so far as to argue that repealing the law would be the first step toward Frederick becoming a "sanctuary county."

That kind of talk may once have been good politics, but here's betting the mainstream of Frederick County isn't buying it anymore. Perhaps the most telling element of the debate was the letter Frederick County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Elizabeth Cromwell send to the County Council in June. She said that the chamber had polled a dozen major employers in the county, collectively responsible for 40,000 jobs, about whether they would support a repeal of the English-only law. "Members' responses were almost unanimous in strong support to rescind the ordinance," she wrote.

It may not make any practical difference whether Frederick keeps the English-only law on the books, but it is important nonetheless. This is a moment when Frederick gets to decide whether it cling to a past that is already gone or look to a future that is rapidly arriving. We certainly hope it will be the latter.

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