Md. Officials Debate How to Cope with Challenges of Increasing Spanish-Speaking Population

By David J. Silverman, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS- Local officials from Maryland's smaller towns suggested on Friday that more Spanish language resources are needed to cope with the increasing number of immigrants in their communities.

"The debate about English-only really is irrelevant here," said Mayor Adam Ortiz of Edmonston, a town in Prince George's County. "We have got to communicate key information, particularly about public safety and particularly about the health, safety and welfare of this community."

Ortiz spoke while participating in a panel on immigration issues before more than 100 of the state's municipal leaders at the Maryland Municipal League's fall conference.

The panel called for more information about what municipalities can and cannot do in enforcing housing codes, while pushing municipal leaders to encourage better Spanish language skills for officials and police and to make the Spanish language more available.

"The worst thing we can do is pretend immigration doesn't exist and find ourselves searching for solutions years from now," said Ortiz, who is of Puerto Rican descent. "We have to be vocal about the challenges and positive solutions."

The effects of immigration are felt acutely in Maryland, where between 1990 and 2000, the foreign born population grew by more than 65 percent, well above the national average, according to the Migration Policy Institute. In 2000, 10 percent of the state's population was foreign born. Officials say the numbers have risen considerably since 2000.

Panelists agreed that steps toward improving communication between the local government and immigrants, many of whom do not speak English, must be taken. Ortiz urged officials to follow his town's lead by making all codes and ordinances available in Spanish.

Ortiz and other panelists suggested hiring or training Spanish speaking employees like police officers to help solve the communication problem.

Kim Propeack, director of community organizing and political action at CASA of Maryland, an advocacy group for the state's Latino community, recommended using Spanish language translators at public hearings and similar events to boost civic activism among immigrants.

She said translators are one of many options for dealing with immigrants that achieve optimal results without "demonizing" people.

Some in attendance weren't convinced.

"To say that we all need to learn Spanish is a bunch of bologna," Anna Marie Angolia, vice chairman of the Cottage City Town Commission, said after the meeting.

John A. Schaffer, a councilman from New Carrollton, said that the biggest problem stemming from immigration in his community is overcrowding in homes.

"We need to stop single family homes from having 31 people in them," he said, noting that additions to many of the single family homes in his community were destroying the city's ambiance. The panel agreed that more information was needed to inform city and town legislators on how they can enforce building codes.

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