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Know Your Rights
Source: Gotham Gazette
Subject: Health Justice & Access
Type: Media Coverage

Good Government Speaks Many Languages

In a city where one in four New Yorkers is still in the process of learning English, City Hall is failing to take its own advice.

In what can only be dubbed a long-overdue acknowledgement of the desperate need for language access services in this city, New York City’s Department of Health released a report this summer, called The Health of Immigrants in New York City, which showed that language barriers prevent immigrant New Yorkers from receiving the same quality of care as their native-born neighbors. One of the report’s primary recommendations to help New York’s population stay healthy is to break down language barriers in health care.

The problem of language barriers doesn’t stop here. Ineffective and incomplete language access creates problems that span every area of government services, problems that affect not only immigrants, but all New Yorkers still working to master English. How can the NYPD respond to a 911 call reporting a crime-in-progress from a U.S. citizen who recently arrived from Puerto Rico if the operator cannot find anyone who can speak Spanish? How can the Department of Labor enforce labor law if it is unable to interview the twenty-five percent of all workers in New York City who do not speak English?

And it’s not the immigrants who are the ones dropping the ball; they’re doing all they can to meet municipal government half way. Immigrants want to learn English. A recent study from the Pew Hispanic Institute reveals that a majority of Latino immigrants (as well as a majority of native-born Latinos) think immigrants should learn to speak English. Unfortunately, even immigrants who want to learn English are not able to access affordable English as a Second Language Classes. A report by the New York Immigration Coalition, entitled Eager for English, found that over ninety percent of the need for English classes went unmet. Thousands of immigrants are crowding ESL classes in churches and at community organizations, but city government is simply failing to make an adequate investment in English language classes.

Also, a recent study by the Urban Institute found that when immigrants speak English, they earn more money and they pay more taxes. Government investment in English classes expands opportunity and promotes increased government revenue over time.

City government cannot meet its obligation to keep New Yorkers safe and provide effective services without breaking down language barriers by providing translation and interpretation services.

The fact that one out of every four New Yorkers does not yet speak English is, frankly, shocking. The fact that Mayor Bloomberg’s initial budget sought to reduce funding for English as a Second Language classes is even more so. Even after the City Council negotiated a restoration of some funding for English language classes, the city is still investing only a miniscule fraction of our budget to promote learning English.

To be fair, over the past few years, New York City has responded to grassroots advocacy on this issue by promoting language assistance services at some government agencies. For example, in 2003, Mayor Bloomberg signed the Equal Access to Health and Human Services Law, legislation that requires City Medicaid, Food Stamps and Welfare offices to provide forms and service in six languages. The law has ensured that all New Yorkers who are eligible for these important federal benefits are able to access them. Similarly, this past February, Mayor Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced new Chancellor’s Regulations for the city Department of Education that require schools to provide language assistance services that will promote academic achievement and meaningful parental involvement for hundreds of thousands of immigrant families.

Yet, despite these improvements, most city agencies remain wholly unprepared to provide effective service to today’s New Yorkers. For example, a study published this spring by the Urban Justice Center and a coalition of community organizations found that over half (fifty-five percent) of New Yorkers were unable to file complaints about hazardous housing conditions with the Department of Housing and Development (HPD) because of language barriers, or were only able to file complaints with the help of a translator they personally supplied. Language barriers prevented these New Yorkers from holding their landlords accountable for breaking the law.

Responsible government requires a two-pronged approach to ensuring accessible and effective services for all New Yorkers. Expanding language assistance services promotes equitable and effective government. Expanding accessible English classes promotes integration and reduces the need for translation and interpretation services over the long haul.

Andrew Friedman is a fellow of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy and founding co-director of Make the Road by Walking