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Know Your Rights
Source: New York Community Media Alliance
Subject: Adult Literacy
Type: Media Coverage

Interpreters: Free, Yes; available?

In July 2008 Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg signed an executive order requiring every New York City agency that dealt with the public to provide interpreters, translated documents and other language help to people who spoke little or no English.

The order was supposed to help immigrant New Yorkers use services and navigate a daunting city bureaucracy. And in keeping with Mr. Bloomberg’s passion for applying good business practices to city government, the policy was meant to prevent the waste of time and money caused by miscommunication and misunderstanding.

But two years later, the mayor’s promise has failed. Many government workers do not offer interpreters, even if people ask for them, and there are no signage and forms in multiple languages.

A study released last week based on interviews with 817 immigrant New Yorkers describes complaints about a lack of interpreters in dealings with the Human Resources Administration, the Police Department and Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which oversees the city’s affordable housing programs.

The study conducted by two advocacy groups, Make the Road New York and the New York Immigration Coalition, found that many immigrants have no idea they are entitled to interpreters and translated forms, in large part because city workers failed to inform them and there were no announcements explaining their rights.

"I speak English very well but I often see how difficult it is for elderly immigrants to communicate with the authorities," said Svetlana Komleva, who lives in Brooklyn. She told the story of her neighbor – an elderly woman who decided to move to an apartment in another area. The woman went many times to the Housing Authority but couldn’t understand how to fill out the forms.

"Finally, she asked me to help her with this matter. I accompanied her to the office just to see for myself if there was anyone who spoke Russian and was willing to help – usually elderly immigrants ask their children or grandchildren for help, but unfortunately my neighbor lives alone. I did my best to help her. My neighbor returned the Housing Authority several times afterwards, but she still hasn’t moved out. Now she is in Kiev on a visit," said Komleva.

Human Resources Administration Commissioner Robert Doar acknowledged the shortcomings but insisted that language access is a priority. The agency "assists more than 3.5 million people each year with a wide range of issues. When there are specific complaints, we diligently investigate them and take appropriate action," said Doar.

Even before Mayor Bloomberg issued his order in 2008, Human Resources’ poor record of providing translation and interpretation prompted the City Council to approve legislation seven years ago dictating the types of language help it should offer to guarantee immigrants’ equal access to benefits. Legal Services NYC, a legal aid group, sued the agency in August, claiming that its failure to comply with the law had "deprived individuals of the necessities of life and repeatedly subjected them to humiliating discrimination."

Russian immigrants often face communication problems when dealing with government agencies. "I work in a firm at Coney Island where we have a customer who is fluent in Russian and English. There was a car accident across the street two months ago. The customer went to check it out," said Leonid Cohen, resident of Staten Island. The bilingual customer came back the next day to tell the story. "It turns out that one of the drivers involved in the accident was a recent immigrant from Russia and didn’t speak English. Our client offered to interpret noticing that the police took the side of the English-speaking driver. But they rudely refused his help and didn’t even try to offer a free translator," Cohen said.

Access to language services, however, is not considered a must by all immigrants. A great number of Russian immigrants and immigrants from the former Soviet Union live in Israel, Germany, and the United States, "whose natives often do not think highly about immigrants and I can’t blame them," says Yana Orlova, who lives in Manhattan. "Take, for instance, the story of my friend’s sister who married an ethnic German and moved to Germany." The young couple settled in a small village in the suburbs of Hannover where the villagers didn’t speak German at all. There was a Russian supermarket and Russian media. "They didn’t even bother to learn German or to look for a job. Why do it if they make a good living with unemployment benefits? We see the same situation in Israel and in America," Orlova added.

Lazy immigrants become a burden for taxpayers, Orlova opined. "They don’t want to learn a second language and don’t want to work, but instead want unemployment benefits, food stamps and free interpreters. They don’t care that other people have to work hard every day to make money they need to live. They want it as an entitlement. It reminds me of the Soviet Union – work or do not work; learn language or don’t learn, but you will get your money and your free translator regardless. No wonder Americans pay high taxes. Why assimilate if you are entitled to free interpreting services?" wondered Orlova.

She blames the behavior of such immigrants for the bad image that immigrants get. "There is a similar situation is in Norway where taxes are as high as 40 percent. There, for example, it is easy to fake political asylum from Uganda. While visiting Oslo my friend noticed that there are more political refugees than native Norwegians. No wonder they are losing their patience. Nobody wants to provide services for those who like interpreters and food stamps on the cuff,” Orlova said.