In just over a decade, Frederick County has been transformed from a bucolic, timeless community of dairy farms and strawberry festivals to a fast-paced mosaic of high-tech firms and housing developments, Pilates classes and exotic eateries, mega-stores and McDonald’s.
The changes have also brought thousands of Hispanics, some legal immigrants and others not, who have migrated up Interstate 270 to meet the demand for construction and service jobs. Until now, the county has handled the influx with outreach classes in schools and community policing programs. Chic Hispanic restaurants flourish in downtown Frederick, and working-class Latinos have remained relatively invisible.
Suddenly, however, their presence is igniting a controversy that some fear could escalate into the kind of war over illegal immigration that has torn apart Prince William County. In the past month, the Frederick County sheriff has joined with federal authorities to identify and deport illegal immigrants, and county commissioners have proposed legislation to ban free translation of county business and require public schools to track down students who are in the United States illegally.
Local opponents of the measures, including black, white and Hispanic residents, say the crackdown and other proposed actions smack of racism and political grandstanding. They say Latinos have been welcomed by Frederick’s businesses as a source of cheap labor. Since 1990, the county’s Hispanic population has more than tripled, from fewer than 5,000 to more than 15,000, growing to about 5 percent of the county’s inhabitants.
Regional organizations on each side have joined the fray. CASA of Maryland, a nonprofit group that lobbies for immigrant rights, plans to present a report today that accuses Jenkins and his department of racial profiling, imprisoning “alarmingly high” numbers of Latinos and using crime fighting as a “subterfuge to deport immigrants.”
Help Save Maryland, a rapidly growing citizens group that opposes illegal immigration, has supported the crackdown in group e-mails, radio interviews and newspaper columns. The coordinator of the Frederick chapter has accused opponents of “playing the race card.”
In the Hillcrest neighborhood, where many of Frederick’s Latinos live (often in households that include legal and illegal immigrants), residents describe growing anxiety. Priests say parishioners have stopped driving to church for fear of run-ins with the police. Check-cashing stores say people are closing their bank accounts. And everyone is asking whether Frederick will become the next Prince William.
Last month, at a meeting organized by the NAACP, several black pastors spoke emotionally of what their community had endured in the days when the Ku Klux Klan operated openly in Frederick and black children were banned from public playgrounds. They vowed not to let Hispanic immigrants be victimized by a new wave of discrimination and called for better communication among all local ethnic groups.
Another moderating factor is the practical approach taken by many officials in Frederick. At a county commission meeting last month, several members pointed out that if translation was barred for county documents and events, it would prevent non-English-speaking residents from learning about health hazards, new laws or even English literacy classes.