Arundel English-only bill: A hostile, empty gesture

County Councilman Jerry Walker wants to make English the official language of Anne Arundel County. That would make perfect sense if English weren't already, for all practical purposes, the county's official language. When was the last time you heard someone complain they couldn't read a county parking ticket or other official document because it was written in Urdu or Farsi?

The fact that this never occurs ought to be a clue: This is not serious legislation but rather a piece of political theater that would achieve nothing more than puffing up the councilman's reputation among the anti-immigrant crowd. It amounts to a wholly unnecessary, mean-spirited swipe at Hispanic residents that will intimidate people regardless of whether they're in the country legally or not. And it will do nothing to improve county governance or to alter the already existing federal and state guidelines requiring government documents to be written in additional languages.

Currently, 31 states have laws designating English their official language. Nearly all of them are states with growing Hispanic populations where conservative Republican lawmakers have made such laws a hateful proxy for fears of illegal immigration and crime, and for restricting immigrants' legitimate access to the ballot box. Advocating such laws is, as Mr. Walker openly admits, code for "you're not welcome here," and politicians embrace the tactic because it's a way of giving the appearance of responding to voters' concerns about illegal immigration without actually doing anything about it.

So far, Maryland lawmakers have wisely resisted this trend. In 2002, the General Assembly adopted a measure requiring all state agencies to translate documents "into any language spoken by any limited English proficient population that constitutes 3 percent of the overall state population within the geographic area served by a local office of a state program." Meanwhile, bills that would make English the only official language, such as the one proposed this year by Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, have repeatedly died in the legislature.

Local jurisdictions such as Frederick County, where commissioners are considering making their resolution designating English as the official language into an official ordinance, still have to comply in some cases with the state law as well as with federal rules mandating materials be published in more than one language. As County Attorney John Mathias told the Frederick News-Post, the ordinance would not change how the county does business — as it stands, Frederick's website includes a Google application that translates it into more than 50 languages. But it would, in the words of Commission President Blaine Young, "set the tone."

The purely symbolic nature of Anne Arundel's proposed law is revealed by the number of exemptions it grants to its own English-only standard. If passed, the measure would allow the county to continue publishing documents 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." That sounds pretty much like exactly what the county is already doing. What else is there?

No one would argue that people who come to this country shouldn't learn English, or that speaking a common language isn't important to a nation made up of immigrants who come here from all over the world, speaking a virtual Babel of tongues. Learning the language is one of the ways newcomers assimilate into our society, and it's also essential to the smooth functioning of government for everyone to be able to understand one another.

But it's one thing for English to be the de facto national language and quite another to pass legislation expressing hostility toward those who speak a foreign language. That not only hampers effective communication but threatens the rights of millions of legal immigrants whose only crime was to have grown up speaking a language other than English.

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