English-only House measure is assailed during hearing

Immigrant advocates question bill's purpose

March 10, 2005|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,SUN STAFF

Deeming it a meaningless yet offensive measure, a diverse coalition of immigrant groups and advocates filled a House committee hearing yesterday where they decried a bill to make English the official state language.

The bill would require that state and local governments publish official documents and conduct meetings in English unless they fall under a set of exceptions such as protecting public safety or complying with federal law.

Federal law requires that state agencies receiving federal funds must, in many cases, provide language assistance to individuals who do not speak English as a first language.

That gives the bill little weight, a point raised repeatedly by immigrant advocates who questioned the purpose of the legislation and called on lawmakers to increase funding for adult literacy programs.

"I strongly believe that it contradicts federal law," said Joseline Pena-Melnyk, a member of the College Park City Council. "This bill ... will create hatred."

Only a handful of people spoke in favor of the bill. Calling herself an "English advocate," Betty Wagner of Reisterstown, said the bill would help "unify the nation."

"It would protect English against competition from foreign interlopers as a language of government and prevent us from going down the path of bilingualism," said Wagner.

Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Republican representing Baltimore and Harford counties and sponsor of the bill, was too ill to appear. In an interview, he called it a "pro-immigrant bill."

"We want to encourage people to learn the language," said McDonough. "We have one flag. We have one Constitution. We have one language, and it's English."

At a news conference, Democratic Dels. Ana Sol Gutierrez and Susan C. Lee, both of Montgomery County, and Shirley Nathan-Pulliam of Baltimore County joined other lawmakers and advocates in assailing the English-only bill and a handful of other measures.

Another bill heard before the House Health and Government Operations yesterday would create a task force to study the impact of illegal aliens on the uncompensated health care system. Other bills are scheduled to be heard this month.

At the hearing on the language bill, some GOP delegates questioned statements that the measure serves no purpose, noting that 27 states have passed similar legislation.

"I don't think you'd be here if this bill does nothing," said Del. Donald B. Elliott, a Republican serving Carroll and Frederick.

Chairman John A. Hurson said he expects the bill will face a "tough time" making it out of committee. The bill is being co-sponsored by a majority of House Republicans.

In 1998, a bill to require English passed the House but did not make it out of a Senate committee. In 1994 and 1995, bills passed the Senate and House but were vetoed by Govs. Parris N. Glendening and William Donald Schaefer.

Schaefer, the state comptroller, now says he would support such a bill. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has not taken a position.

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