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Immigrants Feel Less Welcome in Frederick

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 6, 2008

In just over a decade, Frederick County has been transformed from a bucolic, timeless community of dairy farms and strawberry festivals to a fast-paced mosaic of high-tech firms and housing developments, Pilates classes and exotic eateries, mega-stores and McDonald's.

The changes have also brought thousands of Hispanics, some legal immigrants and others not, who have migrated up Interstate 270 to meet the demand for construction and service jobs. Until now, the county has handled the influx with outreach classes in schools and community policing programs. Chic Hispanic restaurants flourish in downtown Frederick, and working-class Latinos have remained relatively invisible.

Suddenly, however, their presence is igniting a controversy that some fear could escalate into the kind of war over illegal immigration that has torn apart Prince William County. In the past month, the Frederick County sheriff has joined with federal authorities to identify and deport illegal immigrants, and county commissioners have proposed legislation to ban free translation of county business and require public schools to track down students who are in the United States illegally.

"The single biggest threat to our country is the immigration problem. We cannot continue to absorb this population or we will end up in collapse like a Third World country," said Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, whose officers have identified 18 illegal immigrants in the past two weeks after traffic stops or other incidents. "We are not going out in a white van with a big net, but we are getting the criminal element of the illegal population out of Frederick County."

Local opponents of the measures, including black, white and Hispanic residents, say the crackdown and other proposed actions smack of racism and political grandstanding. They say Latinos have been welcomed by Frederick's businesses as a source of cheap labor. Since 1990, the county's Hispanic population has more than tripled, from fewer than 5,000 to more than 15,000, growing to about 5 percent of the county's inhabitants.

"This is nothing but scapegoating," said Lydia Espinoza, a community mediator of Mexican American descent. "The immigrant community has been growing here for years, but now people are seeing more Latinos in public, speaking Spanish in stores. They hear about overcrowded houses or issues that can be resolved by the community. Instead, some people are stoking these emotional fires to create group feelings against immigrants."

Regional organizations on each side have joined the fray. CASA of Maryland, a nonprofit group that lobbies for immigrant rights, plans to present a report today that accuses Jenkins and his department of racial profiling, imprisoning "alarmingly high" numbers of Latinos and using crime fighting as a "subterfuge to deport immigrants."

Help Save Maryland, a rapidly growing citizens group that opposes illegal immigration, has supported the crackdown in group e-mails, radio interviews and newspaper columns. The coordinator of the Frederick chapter has accused opponents of "playing the race card."

In the Hillcrest neighborhood, where many of Frederick's Latinos live (often in households that include legal and illegal immigrants), residents describe growing anxiety. Priests say parishioners have stopped driving to church for fear of run-ins with the police. Check-cashing stores say people are closing their bank accounts. And everyone is asking whether Frederick will become the next Prince William.

"I used to love Frederick, but now I don't feel comfortable here anymore," said Concepcion Ramirez, 20, a Mexican-born waitress. "I went to high school here, and everyone was so caring and nice. But people are scared of the police now. Every time you get in your car, you are thinking every single moment of what to do if they stop you."

Despite the contretemps, residents say there is little chance that Frederick will become as bitterly divided as Prince William, where officials approved a number of policies last year to drive out illegal immigrants. In Frederick, the recent proposals to halt public translation services and count illegal pupils are unlikely to become law, in part because they may conflict with state and federal statutes.

One reason for the difference is Frederick's diverse character, a blend of rural courtliness and urban worldliness. The county's economic mainstays include military research, dairy farms, high-tech industry and tourism. Its populace includes seventh-generation German Americans, a black middle class and young professionals who commute to Rockville or Washington. It has an active NAACP chapter and an annual Latino Festival.

Last month, at a meeting organized by the NAACP, several black pastors spoke emotionally of what their community had endured in the days when the Ku Klux Klan operated openly in Frederick and black children were banned from public playgrounds. They vowed not to let Hispanic immigrants be victimized by a new wave of discrimination and called for better communication among all local ethnic groups.

Another moderating factor is the practical approach taken by many officials in Frederick. At a county commission meeting last month, several members pointed out that if translation was barred for county documents and events, it would prevent non-English-speaking residents from learning about health hazards, new laws or even English literacy classes.

Frederick Police Chief Kim Dine, who is white, spent years in Washington's Latino neighborhoods and is an advocate of police outreach in the community. County Board of Education Chairman Daryl Boffman, who is black, has worked to promote the kind of educational boosts for immigrant students that once helped him get ahead.

"When I first came to Frederick, the Klan was still putting leaflets on windshields, but we've come a long way since then," said Boffman, 45. "Some people still want to keep Frederick the way it once was, but we can't let these issues pull the county apart. We have to break down barriers, not build them."

One example is the Even Start class at Hillcrest Elementary School, a federally funded program in which mothers from Mexico and Central America and their preschool children learn English together. They sing songs, read and do art projects in an atmosphere designed to help the mothers become more comfortable with the school system and better prepared to help their children.

Outside institutional settings, interactions between longtime residents and Hispanic newcomers seem to be mostly friction-free. One local radio host has complained that the county spent $2,000 to paint signs in Spanish on school buses, but many businesses and churches advertise in Spanish, and several of Frederick's most popular restaurants are owned by Hispanics who have developed loyal clients and good community relations.

"I like the people here. They are conservative but friendly," said Jose Hernandez, an immigrant from El Salvador who co-owns the Mexicali Cantina in downtown Frederick. Hernandez, who said 95 percent of his customers are non-Hispanic, paused to greet two women finishing a birthday lunch.

"I just love the chimichangas," one of them said. "And I love this place. They treat you like they expect you."

Some leaders of Frederick's new movement against illegal immigration defy stereotyping. County Commissioner John L. "Lennie" Thompson Jr., who proposed the measure to identify all illegal students, comes from a long line of dairy farmers and holds degrees in law and business. He said he hated to see his beloved pastures being carved up by developers but had no problem with legal immigrants coming to Frederick to participate in the boom.

"We are all immigrants here, one way or another. My concern is strictly with the people who are not in the country lawfully," Thompson said. "We need to get a better handle on the size of the problem; we need to do something about people who drive without licenses and overcrowd houses. But eventually there will be a grand compromise in Congress, the borders will be secured and the problem will solve itself. We will all survive."

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