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Know Your Rights
Source: City Hall
Subject: Language Access
Type: Media Coverage

A Move Toward Better Government We Can All Understand

*Co-Authored by Chung-Wha Hong

Mayor Bloomberg has bucked the trend. While localities across the nation are recoiling at the challenges posed by changing demographics, New York City’s mayor has addressed them head-on with a newly announced executive order that will make all agencies in New York City accessible to the 1.8 million New Yorkers who have not yet had the chance to become conversant in English. 

In his signature practical way, Mayor Bloomberg is acknowledging that the capacity to communicate with all New York City residents, including the 3 million foreign-born neighbors, co-workers and classmates among us, is a pre-requisite for good government. This executive order is about making sure government can do its job effectively for all New Yorkers. 

The order sets basic standards for all city agencies to follow in serving constituents who are not proficient in English. Under the order, agencies will designate a language access coordinator and over the next several months develop agency-specific plans for implementing the order, which will involve translating important forms, such as applications and notices, into the city’s most common languages, and managing communication assistance resources such as telephone-based interpreting. 

It’s all very commonsensical—the buildings department, for instance, can’t ensure safe housing for all New Yorkers if it can’t communicate with nearly 2 million of us. Similarly, the police can’t effectively conduct investigations if they can’t take statements from the significant number of New Yorkers who speak Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Haitian-Creole, Arabic and Bengali.

Advocates have worked with the city over the years to put language access policies in place at the Human Resources Administration, Department of Education, and Health and Hospitals Corporation. Mayor Bloomberg’s new executive order capitalizes on the significant improvements these agencies have achieved in serving New Yorkers in languages they can understand. 

But the order, which is the culmination of a decade or more of intensive work by community advocates to make government more accessible, is also just the first step; the Mayor’s Office of Operations now has to oversee implementation of the executive order, and each agency has to develop its own language access plans. Providing a real forum for community input into that process is essential, and we look forward to working with Operations and individual agencies to ensure that community voices are part of the planning.

Given the current tenor of the national debate around all things immigrant, the mayor will likely take flak from those who unfavorably compare today’s immigrants with the mythical immigrant of yore, who, legend has it, learned English fluently in the time it took to pass through the great hall at Ellis Island. But that immigrant never really existed, and studies show that today’s immigrants learn English at the same rate at least as immigrants always did, if not more quickly. In the interim, though, new New Yorkers need to know how their children are doing in school, for example, and should be able to report crimes or unsafe housing conditions.

Back in January, when the mayor delivered his State of the City address, he said with eloquence, "We are committed to making our City government quicker, leaner, stronger, better, and to giving all New Yorkers a city that matches their ambition and honors their dreams." And, referring to immigrant families, "their presence is a two-way street. New York gives them unlimited opportunities and these families help make New York the nation’s economic engine, its financial hub, its fashion center, its media mecca, and its cultural capital. And that’s one of the messages I’ve been speaking out on, to those who are wailing against immigration, to those politicians who, all of a sudden, have embraced xenophobia, I say: open your eyes." 

Now, he has translated that eloquence into action. By setting his sights on effective government services, the mayor has declared that the government of the most diverse city in the world is up to the distinct communication challenges this diversity poses. We know, in the end, the city will be better off for it. In issuing this executive order, and in continuing to work closely with the communities that will be served by it, Mayor Bloomberg has taken a giant step forward toward our goal of being a city that welcomes and serves all New Yorkers.

**Co-Author Andrew Friedman is the Co-Executive Director of Make the Road New York.