English-Only Laws Are Divisive and Ludicrous

Fredrick Kunkle wrote a story for The Washington Post earlier this week about a proposed English-only ordinance in Carroll County, MD. Kunkle finds it curious that English-only would be much of an issue in a county where only about 2.6% of the resident are Latino. There is no mention in the article of the recently enacted Maryland DREAM Act, and whether the controversy over that measure over the last year or so might have anything to do with the timing of this proposal.

Later in the story we learn that the ordinance wouldn’t actually do anything:

Kim Propeack, political director of CASA of Maryland, said the proposed ordinance’s only significance is its symbolism. Federal and state laws require that services they fund must be accessible in languages besides English. It’s also meaningless in the private sector, where businesses that are eager to win new customers have embraced bilingualism.

“On a policy level, this is just ludicrous,” Propeack said. “You have to wonder what they’re really trying to say.”

Two paragraphs later, we have our answer:

“Send them all back where they came from,” said store owner Shane Fitzgerald, 33.

One other point that can’t be made enough, apparently. If universal, free, English-language instruction were suddenly made available to all, and everyone who wanted to learn English enrolled tomorrow, (and plenty of people would) that would not remove the obligation to provide government services and information in multiple languages, because it actually takes some time to learn a new language. And you’d need to keep those services and information resources accessible to non-English speakers even after all your current residents have learned English, because more non-English speaking people will be coming along right behind them.

That is, unless you take the position that non-English speakers simply don’t have the same rights as those who do.

There just isn’t any remotely legitimate policy interest behind English-only laws. The government has an obligation to treat people equally and fairly, and not every one of us at any given time speaks/read/understands English. It’s pretty simple.

Most non-english speaking people want to learn English. The way to support people to do this is to invest in programs that will help them to learn. I don’t know about Carroll county, but recent reports are that Maryland has an adult education waiting list at any given time of about 1,200-2,700 people. (And a report from a few years earlier had that number at about 5,000, with the vast majority waiting for ESL services.) Waiting list numbers always underestimate the actual demand for services, because many people have given up looking, or can’t find a suitable program in their community to begin with.

h/t @JohnSegota