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Know Your Rights
Source: The New York Times
Subject: Health Justice & Access
Type: Media Coverage

Mayor Orders New York to Expand Language Help

the city’s bureaucracy can be a daunting endeavor for the nearly three million
immigrants who live in New York.
Aside from a lack of knowledge about the way government works and the services
it provides, one fundamental barrier has stood in their way: language.

There are
an estimated 170 foreign languages spoken in New York City, and in nearly half of all
households, English is not the primary language, according to the census in
2000. And given that the city receives more than 20 million calls from
residents each year, officials said, communication can often be a challenge.

On Tuesday,
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg ordered the city’s more than 100 agencies to provide
language assistance in six foreign languages: Spanish, Chinese, Russian,
Korean, Italian and French Creole. The order requires, for the first time, that
the agencies follow the same standard when providing translation and
interpretation to New Yorkers who do not speak English.

advocates and city officials say it is the most comprehensive order of its kind
in the country. The mayor refused to be specific about how much the services
will cost, saying only that it was a "relatively small" amount given the size
of the city’s budget. He added: "This executive order will make our city more
accessible, while helping us become the most inclusive municipal government in the

fundamental basis of government is its interaction with its citizens," the
mayor said before signing the executive order at City Hall on Tuesday. "If
people don’t know what we do, don’t know what they should do, what the law
requires them to do, don’t know how to get services, all the money that we’re
spending providing those services, providing those laws, is meaningless."

The order
requires that agencies translate essential public documents, pamphlets and
forms in the six languages. But its reach is broader, as it allows for the use
of a telephone-based service that can link immigrants with interpreters who
speak Urdu, Hindi, Arabic and dozens of others less-common languages.

Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella
organization that works with immigrants and refugees in the state, called the
order "a landmark step toward inclusion." Councilwoman Rosie Mendez of Manhattan, who has pushed
for more translation services for public housing dwellers, said it was a "bold
and necessary action" to increasing immigrants’ access to city government.

The types
of services each agency will provide will depend on how much each of them
interacts with the public. The agencies have until Jan. 1 to submit a plan
detailing how much translation and interpretation service they will need to
suit their needs.

advocates* and some elected officials have tried for more than 10
years to get the city to provide language assistance to non-English speaking
New Yorkers, with limited success. In 2001, a federal judge approved a
settlement** through which the city agreed to make available Spanish, Russian,
Chinese and Arabic copies of food stamp applications in welfare offices around
New York, as well as translation of these documents into languages spoken by at
least 100 clients who use any given office.**

recent years, the Education Department’s translation unit has been expanded to
provide parents with information in eight languages. The city’s 311
customer-service center has allowed interactions in 170 languages since it was
formed in 2003. And the Office of Emergency Management has offered audio
recordings of some public documents to those who are visually impaired, a
spokeswoman for Mr. Bloomberg said.

Including Make the Road New York.
response to Make
the Road New York’s

continued advocacy on behalf of immigrants.