Md. city declares English official

Taneytown council calls for business in one language

November 14, 2006|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun reporter

Taneytown became the first municipality in Maryland to pass a resolution declaring English its official language but stopped short last night of a proposed change to the city charter that had drawn criticism from civil rights groups and some residents.

Mayor W. Robert Flickinger said the nonbinding English Language Unity resolution was preferable to a change in the charter, which would have been costly to implement and probably would have drawn lawsuits.

Had the charter been amended, "you're stuck with it," he said.

Taneytown's action comes on the heels of similar, more sweeping ordinances elsewhere - the latest Farmers Branch, Texas, where the City Council adopted ordinances last night to crack down on illegal immigration and make English the official language, McClatchy-Tribune reported.

The packed meeting room in the Dallas suburb erupted in cheers when the council unanimously approved ordinances that mandate that nearly all official business be conducted in English, prohibit landlords from renting to people who cannot prove their citizenship or legal status, and require city police to work with federal immigration officials to target "criminal aliens."

A law to make English the official language passed in Hazleton, Pa., in July, but a judge stayed on constitutional grounds the implementation of an ordinance that would fine landlords who rent to undocumented immigrants and businesses that employ them.

More than 50 municipalities nationwide have considered, approved or rejected similar resolutions and laws, according to the Associated Press

The Taneytown resolution, which calls for all city government business to be conducted in English except where prohibited by state or federal law, was submitted this summer by Councilman Paul E. Chamberlain Jr.

"This issue is not about giving up your native tongue," Chamberlain said during last night's council meeting. "All we are asking is, if you become a U.S. citizen, you learn to speak English. What is so controversial about making English our official language?"

Chamberlain made the English-only issue central to his campaign for a state Senate seat, but lost in the Republican primary.

Some said Chamberlain's crusade was an election-year ploy. "It's not about me," he said recently. "It's about we as a city. This is what the people feel we should have."

Councilman James L. McCarron denounced the measure. In his more than 22 years on the council, he said, no one ever came forward with a comment or complaint who didn't speak English.

"I have no problem making English the official language of the state of Maryland or even America, but to make it the official language of Taneytown is simply a nonissue," McCarron said. "It's not a unity resolution. It's a disunity one."

In a meeting that also had bicycle safety, snow removal and water allocation on the agenda, the English Language Unity Resolution passed swiftly, with little debate. There was no opportunity for public comment from the several dozen people filling the small meeting room.

No one could say what impact the resolution will have.

While Hazleton's Illegal Immigration Relief Act has been put on hold until February, Hispanic immigrants already have started to leave in droves, said City Council President Joseph Yannuzzi.

"Just passing the ordinance has caused the illegal immigrants to leave," he said. "Most of the towns that surround us are passing it, too. Now they're going to Scranton."

There are far fewer immigrants to drive away in Taneytown. About 1.5 percent of the city's more than 5,000 residents described themselves as Latino or Hispanic in the 2000 Census - and only 37 Taneytown residents reported that they spoke English less than "very well."

Taneytown's English-only resolution might stand legal muster, but similarly amending the city charter could violate state law, said Elizabeth Alex, Baltimore manager of CASA of Maryland, an immigrants rights group.

A 2002 law requires all state agencies to provide interpreters and to translate crucial documents into any language spoken by 3 percent of the population.

"The ordinance goes too far to the extreme," said Alex, who attended last night's meeting. "Where it becomes tricky is when an agency has a mix of city and state funding and employees. There definitely could be some legal ramifications."

At a Taneytown City Council workshop Wednesday, several residents questioned the need for such a resolution, Alex said.

"For such a small number of people that would be affected, it seemed to them like a waste of the council's and the residents' time," she said. "People were also unhappy about the kind of image they would be sending to folks outside of Taneytown. Immigrants and nonimmigrants alike might feel unwelcome."

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