“The data show that linguistic assimilation, at least the acquisition of English as a language of competence, is universal,” said Richard Alba, a sociology professor at the Graduate Center at City University of New York. “If anything, it’s attempts to hold on to one’s mother tongue that generally give way over time, even though it’s perhaps easier to navigate American society today without knowing English than it was a century ago.”
Shoemaker emphasized that the proposed ordinance for Carroll is not an English-only law; it would pertain only to governmental business. He was guarded as to the source of the anecdote about the Armenian land-use case — “I’m sworn to secrecy on that,” he said — but he also wants to encourage assimilation.
“Wave after wave of immigrants has arrived in our nation, and they’ve assimilated under one language,” Shoemaker said.
Kim Propeack, political director of CASA of Maryland, said the proposed ordinance’s only significance is its symbolism. Federal and state laws require that services they fund must be accessible in languages besides English. It’s also meaningless in the private sector, where businesses that are eager to win new customers have embraced bilingualism.
“On a policy level, this is just ludicrous,” Propeack said. “You have to wonder what they’re really trying to say.”
Shoemaker’s proposal found enthusiastic support at the Bowhunter’s Den, where several employees and customers saw the English-language proposal as a way of resisting change that they neither approve of nor like. They were astonished that President Obama had been reelected, annoyed over grocery store aisles set aside for Latino foods and angry that non-immigrants increasingly must accommodate newcomers and not the other way around.
“Send them all back where they came from,” said store owner Shane Fitzgerald, 33. “I shouldn’t have to ‘press 1’ to speak English.”
Downtown, at the Cup tea bar, however, several employees and customers were just as firm in their opposition to the ordinance.
“It’s just very ignorant and shows a fear of people,” said Jaimie Ferguson, 22, a barista who lives in Finksburg. “I think a majority of the county is against change; it’s very conservative. But the fact of the matter is, the world is changing, and if you want to be a part of it, maybe you have to change your values and see what happens, because maybe something really good could come out of it.”
Jose Alejandrez embodies that change. He started building his version of the American dream soon after leaving Mexico 13 years ago. He crossed the border on foot at the age of 15, nearly perishing in the desert. He picked vegetables in California, then apples in Washington. He washed dishes at restaurants in Maryland.
Over time, Alejandrez and his wife, Patricia, who grew up in Maryland, saved enough money to start Papa Joe’s, a small, cheerful place off Main Street that serves fajitas and other Mexican fare. Alejandrez calls Union Bridge home but practically lives at the restaurant. His day starts at 9 a.m. and usually goes to 11 p.m. or later. He’s proud of his business and pleased that it has weathered the recession.
Along the way, Alejandrez, 34, learned to speak English fairly well. But he wants to do better, so he attends English classes at the Carroll County Family Center. He thinks every immigrant should learn English, although he also hopes his three children will retain the language of his former homeland. Yet, especially as a businessman, he thinks the proposed ordinance is a bad idea.
“I guess it could make people feel unwelcome,” he said.