FREDERICK -- The turning point for newly elected Frederick County Commissioner Charles Jenkins came at a meeting where many county offices requested increased funding for interpreters, particularly Spanish-speakers. Jenkins asked if those receiving services were legal residents and was told that, for the most part, no one knew.
"That stuck with me," he said. "I think it's only fair that if you're going to ask taxpayers to fund a program that you're going to benefit from, that you at least be in this country legally."
Spurred by that conviction, Jenkins has tread into a contentious national conversation, along with other local governments - including Anne Arundel County, Loudoun County, Va., and Hazleton, Pa. - that have passed or attempted to pass laws targeting illegal immigrants. He has proposed a law that would deny county services, including schooling, to immigrants who entered the country illegally. And he says he is willing to take the case to the Supreme Court if necessary.
His proposal is still in an embryonic stage: It is short on details and a long way from enactment, and even Jenkins believes approval is unlikely. But the idea has met heated debate in this county, which has the fastest-growing immigrant population in Maryland.
Echoing arguments made in other jurisdictions, critics call the measure cruel and impractical, while supporters say local governments must take action because of a failure at the national level to fix a broken immigration system.
"I'm not doing this out of malice," Jenkins said. "I hear, `This is racism, xenophobia, narrow-mindedness.' I can tell you quite frankly, it's not. ... It's about asking folks to foot the bill for you when you've broken the law to get here."
But the logistical and legal barriers are too great for such legislation, said Jan Gardner, president of the county commissioners. Using Frederick as a test case and spending millions in legal fees doesn't make sense, she said, and Jenkins' proposal does not consider the implications of denying food to people or education to children.
"Where does the humanity and protecting human dignity come into the equation?" she asked. She added, "I think it has zero chance of advancing through the state legislature, so what this comes down to fundamentally is rhetoric versus reality."
In Frederick County, commissioners send a legislative package to their state senators and delegates, who decide which proposed local laws to bring before the Maryland General Assembly for a vote. A public hearing on Jenkins' proposal will be held next month.
The measure faces an uphill battle for a number of reasons, including what Frederick County Attorney John Mathias described as "constitutional questions." The Supreme Court has ruled that states cannot deny undocumented children access to public education.
A federal court recently threw out a Hazleton ordinance that sought to deny city contracts and business permits to companies that employed illegal immigrants. Similar cases are now wending their way through the courts, and other jurisdictions will be emboldened or deterred as those cases are decided, Mathias said.
In the meantime, Maryland legislators are regarded as unlikely to embrace the proposal.
"Just like the state or the county can't print money, we can't decide immigration issues," said Del. Sue Hecht, a Frederick County Democrat. "This is not something a single county or even a single state can address. You can't have a patchwork policy on this."
That this debate has moved to Frederick County might not surprise those who have followed the huge boom in the county's immigrant population. The 2000 census showed that 7,779 foreign-born residents lived in the county. According to estimates from the Census Bureau's 2006 American Community Survey, that number has nearly tripled to 19,437 - an increase that outstrips the growth in other Maryland counties.
Residents say they see evidence of this rapid change in the Salvadoran, Mexican and Peruvian restaurants that have cropped up, in the slew of new Latino markets, and in the Spanish-speaking tellers at banks Latinos frequent. In one year, from 2005 to 2006, the number of English-language learners in the school system - who represent 13 countries - jumped from 896 to 1,120, said Marita Loose, a spokeswoman for Frederick County public schools.
"I have never seen such an influx of Hispanic people," said Donna Colby, who moved to Frederick from Michigan in the spring. "It doesn't matter what store you walk into. I was really shocked. Not only the patrons, but all the employees. It's amazing."
Colby, a naturalized citizen who emigrated with her family from Canada as a baby, said she has mixed feelings about the proposed law, but many others have lined up on one side of the issue or the other.