Only in America

May 07, 2004

"GIVE ME your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free -- but only if they speak good English." So might Comptroller William Donald Schaefer amend the words of Emma Lazarus, beckoning the immigrants who provide this country with its lifeblood.

His public diatribe about the difficulty of ordering fast food from clerks not conversant in English joins a long list of cranky complaints from a man old enough and powerful enough to figure he can get away with them.

In this instance, his words are not only intolerant and wrongheaded, but reflect an attitude exactly opposite of the welcoming image his beloved Baltimore must project to attract the new arrivals desperately needed to ensure its future.

Language barriers do pose difficulties. In Montgomery County, Maryland's most diverse subdivision, schools cope with students speaking 123 different native tongues.

But it's not as though immigrants aren't being "Americanized," as Mr. Schaefer put it; learning a new language takes time.

And here's a thought: The children of the fast-food clerks who upset the comptroller are going to grow up speaking better English than Mr. Schaefer ever could. Bet on it.

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