Concerns about the identity and character of Frederick County brought heated debate from a standing-room-only crowd at Winchester Hall as the discussion of the county’s English-only ordinance continues.
Two County Council members, Jessica Fitzwater and M.C. Keegan-Ayer, have proposed a bill to do away with a 3-year-old ordinance establishing English as the official language of Frederick County.
The ordinance requires that all of the county’s official business be conducted in English, although there are several exceptions to the rule regarding safety and health issues, and to comply with state and federal law.
The council heard passionate appeals for and against the repeal on Tuesday at a second reading of the bill. More than 70 people spoke during the more than three hours of hearings, their comments interpreted into American Sign Language.
Fitzwater and Keegan-Ayer have criticized the English ordinance as ineffective and intolerant. Getting rid of it, they argued, would create a more welcoming environment for new employers and residents.
Supporters of the English ordinance took issue with the premise that it makes Frederick unwelcoming. One speaker asked Fitzwater to support with data her assertion that businesses are passing the county by because of it.
A small portion of county residents have difficulty speaking English, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Nearly 4 percent of respondents to the 2013 American Community Survey spoke the language “less than very well.”
Several speakers acknowledged, explicitly or implicitly, that the ordinance’s purpose is mostly symbolic. It was frequently characterized as either an incentive for new immigrants to learn English or a red flag to scare them away.
“There really is no compelling reason for the ordinance. It doesn’t change anything,” said Ray Garza, chairman of the Frederick Immigration Coalition, noting that immigrants understand they need to learn English.
On the other side of the debate, Frederick resident David Kaye said, “Repealing this ordinance serves no purpose other than to fan the flames of divisiveness.”
Supporters of the English ordinance also brought up more practical concerns, such as the cost of providing documents in other languages and the need to have a common language for communicating in emergencies.
The English ordinance narrowly applies to how the county conducts business and would not require a resident to learn the language.
Spanish speakers, including Maria Diana Sanchez Gonzalez and Roxana Orellana Santos, who once filed a discrimination suit against the county, addressed the council through an interpreter.
They were working to learn English, they said, but they hoped the county would show Spanish respect and offer documents in the language. Gonzalez said afterward she had been in a legal situation in which she had difficulty understanding English documents, although she declined to elaborate on the circumstances.
Another supporter of the repeal cited the importance of having voting documents available in various languages.
Members of the public frequently referenced their own immigrant stories to support their points. Lisa Euliss said her mother came from Chile and learned English.
“If we repeal English as an official language, we send the wrong message,” she said. “We should not have to accommodate to the minority.”
Sheriff Chuck Jenkins offered a law enforcement perspective, refuting that the ordinance has a chilling effect on crime reporting and that it creates an unwelcoming environment.
“There are no barriers out there,” he said. “I very frankly think this is an attempt to undo what the previous [board] did.”
If residents are having trouble learning English, he added, they may just have to put more effort into it.
ProEnglish, a national group campaigning to make English the official language of the country, made its mark on the debate.
It mailed its local supporters and contacted them via robocall to encourage them to speak out against the repeal.
Executive Director Robert Vandervoort declined to say how many letters were mailed by the group, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls anti-immigrant.
Vandervoort spoke before the council, saying, “Keeping English as the official language provides a powerful incentive for new immigrants.”