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Maryland County Repeals English-Only Ordinance

  • Deborah Block

More than 300 languages are spoken in the United States, from Arabic and Armenian to Urdu and Vietnamese. But more than half the states have legislation making English their official language. Some even require certain government documents be printed only in English.

Frederick County, Maryland, passed an ordinance in 2012 requiring county documents and business to be written and conducted only in English.

The only exceptions were for public health, safety, trade and tourism. The regulation was approved as the county of more than 230,000 residents — 80 percent of whom are white — was seeing an increase in Latino and Asian immigrants.

Last month, the County Council repealed the law.

Schoolteacher Jessica Fitzwater, who was elected to the council in 2014, spearheaded the repeal effort.

The law reflected “intolerance to people from diverse backgrounds,” she said, adding that the bill “made it sound like English is in trouble, and declaring English as the official language of Frederick County was somehow going to save that."

The Hispanic and Asian residents said the ordinance indicated to them that they were not welcome, said Elizabeth Chung, director of Frederick’s Asian American Center.

“I think that when you’re using the words ‘English-only,’ " it shows the country doesn’t “want anybody else in here but only those who speak English.”

Jorge Ribas, president of the Mid-Atlantic Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, agreed. He said the law implied, “We don’t want these people around. Let’s make their lives difficult.”

But council member Billy Shreve, who voted for the law in 2012, said it was never meant to be anti-immigrant. It was designed as a way to save money by reducing the high cost of translating county documents into several different languages.

“It basically said the official language for Frederick County that we do business in as a government is English, and if you need any professional services beyond that, you’re responsible for paying for those,” he said.

But Fitzwater noted federal and local laws mandate that a lot of documents be made available in many languages anyway, so the law hadn’t done much to cut the county's costs.

She said the repeal of the bill, by a 4-3 vote, sent a new message about Frederick: “We’re open-minded, and we embrace and celebrate diversity, and not that we’re close-minded and only accept people whose primary language just happens to be English.”

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