Maryland counties seek to make English official language

Jose Soto doesn't pay attention to politics in Frederick County. He's new to town and spends much of his time working at an apple-processing plant in Pennsylvania. But he heard something a few weeks ago about the county making English its official language.

"I think it's a little racist," Soto said as he stopped by a Latino grocery store in Frederick before heading to work one afternoon last week. The 32-year-old was born in Guatemala and emigrated to Los Angeles as a child.

Last month, the county became the first in Maryland to declare English its official language, though supporters of the measure acknowledge the move was largely symbolic because county business is done in English now. Anne Arundel and Queen Anne's counties are considering similar laws as well — part of a nationwide movement that supporters tout as a way to help immigrants assimilate.

In 2008, Frederick County adopted a non-binding resolution that declared English the official language. Back then, there weren't enough votes to pass a stronger law, says Blaine Young, president of the county's board of commissioners. But in 2010, Republicans won every seat on the five-member panel; four were newcomers.

Young, a former city alderman and son of Democratic state Sen. Ronald Young, hosts a talk-radio show on a local station. He also owns Taxi-Fiesta, a cab company that serves Spanish-speaking customers and employs drivers from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and other countries.

"The No. 1 message we want to put in Frederick County is that we put legal, law-abiding citizens first," Young said at his commission office in downtown Frederick. "I'm glad that other counties are following suit. I think it's a non-partisan issue. I think it's a common sense issue."

According to the U.S. Census, about 4 percent of the county's population speaks English at a level less than "very well."

The law says all official county actions must be taken in English — something that's done already. It allows exceptions, including for health and safety reasons, and for compliance with federal laws on issues such as voting rights.

"We felt it stated the obvious," Young said.

Experts say that the so-called "Official English" or "English-Only" movements go back hundreds of years, though today's target Hispanics. Proponents have been much more successful at the local level than nationally. Today, 31 states have English as their official language.

Such sentiments have "long, long roots" — all the way back to the 1700s, when there was opposition to the language spoken by German immigrants in the Midwest, said Rameez Abbas, a political scientist and coordinator of the global security master's program at Johns Hopkins University. A similar anti-German feeling existed in the World War I era.

"The thing with the current variant of the English-Only movement is that they try very hard to portray the current group of immigrants as a break from the past," Abbas said. "They want to say they are somehow different."

And the idea that immigrants don't want to learn English is a myth, experts say.

"Immigrants are transitioning faster to English today than ever before, and the second generation is losing the immigrant language at a much faster pace than before," said Terrence Wiley, president of the Center for Applied Linguistics, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C.

Opponents call such measures a legally meaningless gesture meant to send an anti-immigrant message.

"It's a government declaration that people are not welcome," said Kimberley Propeack, political director of the group CASA de Maryland, the state's largest immigrant advocacy organization. "It emerges out of the sense on the part of individual politicians that there are cultural shifts that they're uncomfortable with."

Frederick County, she noted, is the only one in Maryland whose sheriff's deputies have federal authorization to begin deportation proceedings against undocumented immigrants charged with certain crimes. Local officials also have tried to prohibit illegal immigrants from renting housing, and proposed counting undocumented schoolchildren.

Fifth-term Frederick County Commissioner Dave Gray cast the only vote against the language legislation. It "says we don't like people who aren't like us," he said.

"It doesn't accomplish anything material," Gray said last week. "It simply creates an atmosphere of antagonism."

At a bilingual insurance agency a few miles from downtown Frederick, 23-year-old agent Paul Quintania said he is not offended by the new law. His parents were born in El Salvador, and he speaks Spanish and English.

Many immigrants get taken advantage of because they can't communicate, Quintania said.

"I'm kind of for it," the Germantown resident said of the new ordinance. "If you do come to America, I think it's your responsibility to at least learn a little English so you can defend yourself."

Still, Quintania said his parents' native language means a lot to him. "I think it's important to learn both languages because you retain part of your culture, your Latino culture."

Frederick County based its ordinance on model legislation by ProEnglish, a national group that seeks to make English the official language. That nationwide campaign is characterized very differently by supporters and opponents.

"It's a very pro-immigrant, immigrant-friendly measure," said Suzanne Bibby, director of government relations for ProEngish. "English is the language of success here."

But Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, said, "This effort to push English as an official language is part of a strategy basically to reduce the Latino population here, and it's a racist strategy."

In Anne Arundel County, Councilman Jerry Walker introduced an official-English bill in February. He withdrew it last week, citing "racially charged" incidents recently on the council. The council is at an impasse over replacing a black councilman, and one councilman recently referred to Vietnamese people with an ethnic slur.

Walker doesn't want the bill to be perceived as racially motivated, he said.

"It doesn't target any one ethnic group or language in general," he said. "My great-grandfather came over to this country from Greece, and he didn't know English and he learned it."

Walker said that during his 2010 campaign, he found many residents were concerned about national issues such as illegal immigration.

"Right after I first got elected, I met with my Republican colleagues before we were even sworn in, and I told them that I would introduce legislation like this sometime during the term," he said. "It's about sending a message to folks that we're not a sanctuary city or county [for illegal immigrants.]"

Walker plans to re-introduce the bill, though he's not sure when.

"Historically, language issues have generally been associated with other kinds of things that are going on where you have a group of people who are stigmatized or discriminated against," Wiley of the Center for Applied Linguistics said.

Today, a driving force is a demographic shift — the birth rate of white, English-speakers is declining, and immigration and minorities are driving population growth, he said.

But even in Queen Anne's County, where the foreign-born population is about 3 percent, Commissioner Dave Olds introduced an official-English measure at the end of February. He calls it a sign of patriotism — an attempt "to get the sprit of America back" into the area.

Olds said he has not seen much opposition to his bill, which is based on Anne Arundel's legislation. It's scheduled to be discussed by commissioners on Tuesday.

"I'm trying to get us all back to basics," the Republican said. "I just can't believe in this country, that that's not the law of the land. …Sometimes people say, 'Why are you doing it?' And I look at them and say, 'Duh.' Why would you not do it?"

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