In Frederick, English language law sows conflict amid Hispanic immigrant boom

(Ricky Carioti/ The Washington Post ) - Chef Victor Rojas, left, a Mexican immigrant, and owner Graham Baker work Feb. 23 in the kitchen of La Paz Mexican Restaurant in Frederick, Md. The two men said the county’s new law declaring English its official language was silly.

(Ricky Carioti/ The Washington Post ) - Chef Victor Rojas, left, a Mexican immigrant, and owner Graham Baker work Feb. 23 in the kitchen of La Paz Mexican Restaurant in Frederick, Md. The two men said the county’s new law declaring English its official language was silly.

On a bustling street in downtown Frederick last week, a group of businessmen chatted in rapid Spanish inside a new Cuban restaurant. Down the block, two Mexican-born painters listened to peppy Latin music on the radio as they touched up a storefront’s facade.

Ten miles east, in a community of aging dairy farms, a recently opened Hispanic church stands next to an old barbershop. Across the street, signs in a McDonald’s restaurant urge customers to “relax and savor,” in both English and Spanish.

Amid such signs of change — driven by a rapid influx of mostly Hispanic immigrants that has brought both vibrant development and social tensions — the Frederick Board of County Commissioners last week adopted an ordinance making English the county’s official language.

The law declares that “the use of a common language removes barriers of misunderstanding” and enables all residents to obtain “full economic and civic participation.”

“We’re just stating the obvious,” said Blaine Young, a business owner and a Republican who heads the county board. He compared the law to others that made milk the official drink of Maryland and the Baltimore oriole the official state bird. “I don’t see what the big deal is,” he said.

But critics say the ordinance, which requires all non-emergency dealings with the county government to be transacted in English, sends a message that is standoffish and discriminatory. Some say it could drive away investment and tourism. Others see it as a futile effort to hold back the tide of change.

Hispanic population boom

During the past decade, the population of Frederick County has grown 20 percent. By far, the greatest growth has been in the Hispanic population, which grew by 267 percent and accounts for 7.3 percent of the county’s population of 233,000, which includes the city of Frederick.

“I don’t see why this is necessary . . . it’s embarrassing,” said Graham Baker, 57, who owns La Paz, a Mexican bistro in Frederick, and employs more than a dozen Hispanics. “They’re all loyal, hard-working folks,” he said. “I can’t get high school kids to wash dishes anymore. Things are changing, and people have to get used to it.”

Victor Rojas, 48, Baker’s Mexican-born kitchen manager, studied English in high school but has forgotten most of it.

“I know I should learn,” he said in Spanish sprinkled with a few English phrases. “I work all the time to support my wife and children back home. There is no time to study.”

The ordinance is not expected to have a dramatic impact because it exempts health, safety and emergency services from having to be conducted in English. Politically, however, it stakes out new ground in a long-term effort by some conservatives to make Frederick a pocket of resistance in a liberal state that has welcomed Hispanic immigrants and been lenient toward those who are not in the United States legally.

A news release from Young’s office noted that Frederick is the first Maryland county to make English its official language. It is also the only Maryland jurisdiction to make a formal agreement with federal immigration authorities to turn over suspected illegal immigrants who are arrested. Since the program took effect in 2009, more than 700 illegal immigrants have been caught, police said. Neither policy is in effect in Frederick city, which has its own government and police force.

Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins praised the language ordinance as “a new tool to discourage people who are here illegally from coming to Frederick County.” He said suspects who do not speak English will be provided with interpreters. He added: “Maryland may be a sanctuary state, but Frederick will not be a sanctuary county.”

Immigrants in favor

The issue of language ability, however, also affects legal immigrants, especially those who arrived as adults. In interviews last week, several longtime Hispanic immigrants in Frederick said they were proud of their hard-won English skills. They expressed sympathy for struggling newcomers but also a strong conviction that they should have to learn English, too.

Alex Ramos, 51, runs a cobbler shop in Frederick city. A native of El Salvador who came here 23 years ago, he worked two jobs until he could open his business.

His English is not perfect, but it is easy to understand, and he learned it on his own.

“For me, English was always the official language. It’s normal, because we are here in the U.S.A.,” Ramos said with a grin. “I bought a dictionary and some cheap notebooks and pencils, and every night I sat down and translated more words. I like this country, and next year I will become a citizen.”

Urban-rural divide

Local opinions about immigrants and language tend to be split along urban-rural lines. In Frederick city, with its historic downtown and gentrifying mix of eateries and antique shops, many people expressed either amusement or horror at the ordinance.

Among people from several communities in Frederick County, there was wide support for the law, mixed with a growing acceptance of the region’s immigrant population. Several said that learning English was more a matter of common sense than anything else.

“Some people have a fear of something different, but I was raised to believe we all have to get along,” said Greg Wolf, who owns a barbershop in rural Walkersville.

Next door, an old house was converted into a Hispanic evangelical church. “I’ve met the pastor, I’ve heard their music in the evenings. They seem fine,” he said with a shrug. “It’s a free country.”

Much of the animosity toward Hispanics is focused on an area on the outskirts of Frederick city known as the “Golden Mile,” where apartments are crowded, crime is high, schools are overwhelmed and many strip-mall stores have closed.

At a Latino market there last week, Julia Colon, a mother of three from El Salvador who works two jobs, as a health aide and housekeeper, said it is her “dream to speak English, but I am gone 14 hours a day.”

Colon speaks only a few phrases of English, all related to her work tasks. “Even if they call it the official language, I cannot learn it by magic,” she said. “Thanks to God, my children are all doing well in school, but for me it is too late.”

 
Read what others are saying