WASHINGTON – The success of an “official English” ballot measure in Oklahoma this month has sparked optimism in Baltimore County Delegate Pat McDonough, who year after year has introduced a similar initiative in Maryland only to see it fall short.
McDonough, a Republican representing parts of Baltimore and Harford counties, plans to reintroduce his bill at the state and county levels to make English “the official legal language of government,” when the General Assembly returns in January.
“I introduce the bill every year for the sake of the people and to keep it in the news,” McDonough said. This year, he said, he hopes things will be different.
More than 75 percent of voters in Oklahoma passed the measure that required “official State actions be in English,” according to the Oklahoma State Election Board. Less than 9 percent of Oklahomans speak a language other than English at home, according to 2009 census data.
The proportion in Maryland is higher, with about 15 percent speaking a different language at home.
McDonough’s bill would not force people to speak English or prohibit teaching foreign languages, he said. It would require all government documents to be in English, with some federal exemptions, such as medical and courtroom documents, he said.
There is support for the legislation here, he said. Maryland residents request his “Speak English” signs and call his radio show, which airs Saturdays 8-10 p.m. on WCBM 680 AM, to voice their support for his English bill, he said.
“The only people who don’t support it are a bunch of misguided politicians in Annapolis,” he said.
McDonough singled out Prince George’s and Montgomery counties as being “misrepresented” by their lawmakers. He is trying to stop Montgomery College from giving in-state tuition to unauthorized immigrants. “Legislators are out of touch with Montgomery County,” he said.
If Maryland residents were allowed to vote on the bill directly, “it would pass overwhelmingly,” he said. He called English a “powerful unifying force in our culture,” which is one reason for his bill.
“We are not a multicultural country,” McDonough said. “We are a multiethnic country.”
But the two are interconnected and the importance of language should not be forgotten, said Delegate Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery. And one reason for the bill, that the state would save money by not having to translate documents, is not as issue, Hixson said.
“It certainly hasn’t been a backbreaking part of the expenses,” she said.
If the bill makes it to the House floor this time, it would be hard for it to pass, she said.
“If the Republicans took over the General Assembly, I suppose it would,” Hixson said.
But a law making English the state’s official language would make immigrants second-class citizens, she said.
However, non-English speakers cut themselves off by being unable to communicate, said Charles Orndorff, administrative vice chairman of national grassroots group The Conservative Caucus.
“As far as being second-class citizens, those who don’t speak English have made themselves de facto second-class citizens,” Orndorff said.
Requiring government documents to be in English will help eliminate this second-class status because it will be an incentive for people to learn English, he said.
But instead of a law to designate English as the official language, the House of Delegates should create more resources to help immigrants learn English, said Martin Ford, associate director of the Maryland Office for Refugees and Asylees.
“I think the will is there, but the means aren’t,” he said.
He called the English bill redundant.
“For all intents and purposes, English works as the official language,” he said.
The atmosphere in Maryland is “probably less anti-immigrant than in other states,” which doesn’t bode well for the English bill, Ford said.
“Never say ‘never,’ but I don’t think it will pass in Maryland,” he said. “But I’ve been wrong before.”