College Park Considers English as Official Language
By Laurie White
Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008; published 3:30 p.m.
College Park City Council member Jack Perry thinks city residents should speak English, officially.
His proposal to make English the city’s official language will be debated in a council work session tonight.
Perry said his proposed charter change is intended to help immigrants, who he says “limit themselves” if they cannot communicate in English.”
His goal is “not to push anybody, but just to state up front what actually is a fact in the city, that English is the official language,” he said.
But not everyone agrees with the need for the change.
Héctor Pop, a campaign organizer for Casa de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group based in Takoma Park, said his organization is organizing students and clients in College Park against the proposal. He said the proposal -- and others like it passed in Maryland -- are unnecessary.
Taneytown officials passed a resolution in November 2006 that Walkersville adopted as a template for a resolution passed in May.
Frederick County officials passed a resolution in April, while rejecting an amendment that would have required the county to produce documents only in English.
“We think it’s a bad solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” Pop said. “People are already learning English, and he is trying to give credit to a symbolic thing.”
Pop said 92 percent of second-generation Hispanic immigrants are already learning English. A 2004 study from the Center for Comparative Immigration at the University of Albany corraborates that figure.
“We have been here generations and generations learning the language,” he said. “If he thinks this law is going to be beneficial to the community, he is completely wrong.”
Perry also faces opposition from at least one council member. District 1 Council member Patrick L. Wojahn said he will oppose the proposal tonight.
“I believe it’s unnecessary,” he said.
The charter resolution states that College Park can “reduce costs and promote efficiency” as an employer and a government by using English in its official actions and activities. The proposal does not specifically address whether city documents would only be published in English.
Wojahn said the proposal does not provide a welcoming environment for all city residents.
“I believe it’s important to include all of our residents in life in the city,” he said, adding that providing some services in languages other than English is part of this responsibility.
Pop said that although English language learning rates are on the rise and instruction is one of his group’s primary activities, translated materials are sometimes essential.
“If people have to go to the emergency room, they have to have access to translation. If people go to court, they have to have language services, or they are not going to be able to defend themselves,” he said.
Although Perry said he has received some positive response from his District 2 constituents, Wojahn said that people he has heard from in District 1 have not been supportive.
“For the most part the people that I’ve spoken to don’t entirely understand why this is being brought forth,” he said. “Many of them think that it’s hateful, that it comes across as saying ‘We don’t want people here.’ ”
He added, “I don’t want to say that Jack Perry is hateful, but I am very concerned about the message that we would be sending by passing a resolution like this.”
District 4 Council member Mary Cook, who said she has been an ESOL teacher for many years, said she sees Perry’s point. “I think English should be the first language,” she said. “We all have to operate in English in this country.”
But she added that it isn’t necessary to make it official in the city. She said residents should not feel excluded.
“I think people are going to misinterpret this, and I think it’s too bad if they do,” she said.
Dan Hartigan, the University of Maryland’s student liaison to the council, said that he has alerted the Student Government Association to the proposal but has not had enough solid information yet to respond.
After tonight’s work session, the proposal will move to next week’s council agenda for a vote, said Assistant City Clerk Yvette Evans. If passed, the charter change becomes official with no further action after 50 days, unless a resident petitions for a referendum.
Perry said he is not targeting any particular language.
“I’m not aiming at any ethnic group. If you’re going to come to America, you learn to speak American, and American English is English.”
Pop suggested that Perry should interact with immigrants to learn their side of the story.
“Maybe he can learn a different language himself,” he said.