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Maryland County Overturns English-Only Law


Illegal and legal immigrants who live in the U.S. of states Maryland and Virginia gather outside the White House in Washington, D.C. to show their support of President Obama's immigration policies, June 2012. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Illegal and legal immigrants who live in the U.S. of states Maryland and Virginia gather outside the White House in Washington, D.C. to show their support of President Obama's immigration policies, June 2012. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)


More than half of all American states have laws making English the official language. In a few areas, state laws require some government documents to be printed only in English.

Three years ago, Frederick County in the U.S. state of Maryland passed just such an ordinance. Frederick County is home to more than 230,000 people. A growing number of them are Latino and Asian immigrants.

Supporters of the English-only law say it saved the county government money. But critics say the law sent a message to immigrants that they were not wanted. In 2015, the county government reconsidered the controversial ordinance.

Frederick Country is about 70 kilometers north of Washington, D.C. The population is 80 percent white. But Frederick has a growing immigrant community, mostly Spanish-speaking Latino.

Two and a half years ago, the county government approved a measure that required official county documents to be written in English. It also required that English be used in all government business.

Local immigrant groups strongly opposed the law. Ray Garza heads the Frederick Immigration Coalition. Mr. Garza says the English-only law showed that undocumented immigrants were not welcome.

"… that indeed, undocumented immigrants were not welcome in Frederick County."

Elizabeth Chung is the head of the Asian-American Center in Frederick, Maryland. She agrees with Ray Garza.

"I think that … using the words 'English-only,' it's a perception, it's a projection that we don't want anybody else in here but only those who speak English."

Jessica Fitzwater was elected to the Frederick County Council in 2014. She immediately pushed to have the law overturned.

"It was part of a(n) overreaching amount of legislation that aimed to be of an anti-immigrant sort of flavor."

Council member Billy Shreve voted for the measure in 2012. He says the law was never meant to be anti-immigrant. Mr. Shreve says the law was meant to make English the official language for Frederick County. This, he adds, would save money by reducing the large cost of producing documents in other 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."

But Ms. Fitzwater says she thinks there was more to the measure than saving money.

"The discussions around the original ordinance, and frankly, also during our public hearing at the repeal, somehow made it sound like English is in trouble, and declaring English as the official language of Frederick County was somehow going to save that."

Last month, the Frederick County Council repealed the law by a vote of 4 to 3. Jessica Fitzwater says that sends a new message about Frederick. She says it shows that her community is open-minded and accepts people from different cultures.

"… that we're open minded, that we embrace and celebrate diversity, and not that we're close minded, and only accept people whose primary language just happens to be English."

I’m Anna Matteo.

Do you think that a national or local government should declare an official language? Please share your comments or questions in the Comments section.

VOA’s Deborah Block reported on this story from Frederick, Maryland. Anna Matteo adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

controversialadj. relating to or causing much discussion, disagreement, or argument

undocumented immigrantset phrase A foreign-born person who lacks a right to be in the United States, having either entered without inspection (and not subsequently obtained any right to remain) or stayed beyond the expiration date of a visa or other status.

repeal v. to officially make (a law) no longer valid

ordinance n. a law or regulation made by a city or town government

coalitionn. a group of people, groups, or countries who have joined together for a common purpose

flavorn. (in this article means) characteristic or strong quality

embrace and celebrate diversity – common phrase when talking about accepting people from different cultures

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