New York Raises the Bar on Language Access

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Jul 25 14:46:17 UTC 2008

New York Raises the Bar on Language Access

In a landmark announcement Tuesday, New York City Mayor Michael
Bloomberg declared that all 100 city agencies that serve the general
public are now required to translate key documents and provide
interpretation for the city's millions of immigrant residents in the
top six languages spoken by New Yorkers.

The new policy, outlined in Executive Order 120, reflects the
linguistic diversity of New York, where half of city residents speak a
language other than English at home. Now communicating to residents in
Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Italian, and French Creole will be
given the same priority as English. The new citywide policy is
expected to assist the nearly 1 in 4 New Yorkers who have a limited
ability to read, write or speak English with accessing city services.

What's more, the announcement of Executive Order 120 spins the
government requirements as a matter of customer service and government
accountability. The new policy mandates the creation of a new Customer
Service Group, housed within the Mayor's Office of Operations, to help
city agencies figure out how to make sure their services and programs
are reaching immigrant New Yorkers.

The announcement establishes New York City at the forefront of
policymaking efforts to encourage immigrants to access government
services. It also provides a stark contrast to the reinvigorated local
initiatives that seek to declare English the sole language for signs
and services. Many cities and states are also increasingly opposed to
policies that help immigrants access government services, even if they
are legally eligible for them.

(Read the full post by checking out Feet in 2 Worlds blog...)

New York has tackled the issue of immigrant access to city services in
a piecemeal fashion in the last fifteen years, first with the creation
of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs , a policymaking agency
that immigrant rights advocates complain lacks enforcement capacity.
In 2003, Mayor Bloomberg issued Executive Order 41, which bars police
officers, paramedics, and other first responders from asking residents
or crime victims about their immigration status. (Other cities with
large immigrant populations such as Los Angeles and San Francisco have
enacted similar policies.) That same year, after a long advocacy
battle, the City Council also passed a bill that requires public
assistance, homeless outreach, health and mental health, and
children's service workers at city agencies to provide translation and
interpretation for immigrant clients.

Executive Order 120 significantly expands government-mandated
translation and interpretation to all city agencies by requiring each
city agency to hire a Language Access Coordinator and develop a
language access plan by January 1, 2009.

After spending the better part of a decade covering the huge need for
translated government documents and interpretation services at city
agencies and hospitals, the ethnic media's editorial pages lauded
Tuesday's announcement as a major step toward effectively meeting the
needs of the city's immigrant residents.

Over the last several years ethnic media has provided some of the best
analysis of how well (and often how poorly) city translation and
interpretation policies have worked in immigrant communities. For
example, the Chinese-language press bemoaned the Department of
Education's Language Support Centers, which aim to answer parents'
questions about their childrens' education and increase immigrant
parent involvement in public schools.

New York may become a model that other cities and states begin to
follow as immigrants continue to arrive in the US and increasingly go
to new destinations such as Arkansas, which has seen its immigrant
population grow by over 200% in recent years. New York State already
has a Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Affairs, established in the
1990's. In the last five years Illinois, Washington, and mostly
recently Massachusetts have all set up similar state agencies to
develop plans and policies to provide immigrant communities with
services such as English as a Second Language classes, as well as
inform these residents about existing government services. Some
agencies have gotten mixed reviews, but they nonetheless reflect a
growing realization in some communities of the thorny policy (and
political) questions of how to effectively serve immigrant residents.

It looks like the definition of customer service is evolving in
interesting ways.

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