[lg policy] NY: Language Help for City ’s Immigrants Falls Short

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jul 7 13:06:38 UTC 2010

 July 6, 2010
Language Help for City’s Immigrants Falls Short

In the world’s most diverse city, it was hailed as a milestone: Mayor
Michael R. Bloomberg signed an executive order in July 2008 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. Mr. Bloomberg pledged at the time to “make our city
more accessible, while helping us become the most inclusive municipal
government in the nation.”

But two years later, the mayor’s promise has fallen short. Many
government workers fail to offer interpreters, even if people ask for
them, and signs and forms in multiple languages are often nowhere to
be found, according to people who have sought services and a lawsuit
filed against one of the city’s largest agencies where the problems
seem particularly acute. The agency, the Human Resources
Administration, is a virtual lifeline to millions of New Yorkers who
depend on it for benefits like food stamps, cash assistance and
subsidized medical care.

Uk Do Lee, 81, a retired inventor from South Korea, said he had been
trying since April to apply for subsidized medical coverage for
low-income older people. The first thing he told a caseworker at one
of the agency’s offices in Elmhurst, Queens, was, “Korean — no can
speak English,” he recalled in an interview.  Mr. Lee asked for an
interpreter, to no avail. He said that because he did not understand
what the workers were saying, he had to return to the office
repeatedly to hand in documents he filled out with outside help, only
to understand from them vaguely that another piece of information or
another form was required. Mr. Lee said he had requested an
interpreter every time, but they insisted on dealing with him in

“The workers don’t listen,” Mr. Lee, who lives in College Point,
Queens, said through an interpreter. “They regard themselves as

Across the city, immigrants and the advocates who help them shared
similar experiences. Zoila Almonte, 59, an unemployed janitor from the
Dominican Republic who lives in Washington Heights, said workers at a
food stamp office on West 218th Street often recruited people in the
waiting room as interpreters. “I only get Spanish-speaking caseworkers
by chance,” she said.

A lawyer who works at South Brooklyn Legal Services said Spanish
speakers were routinely told that they had to come up with their own
interpreters at a New York City Housing Authority office in Brooklyn
that processes subsidized housing vouchers.

And a study based on interviews with 817 immigrant New Yorkers to be
released on Wednesday 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, by two advocacy groups, Make the Road New York and the New
York Immigration Coalition, found that many immigrants had no idea
they were entitled to interpreters and translated forms, in large part
because city workers had never told them and they had found no signs
explaining their rights.

Robert Doar, commissioner of the Human Resources Administration,
acknowledged shortcomings but said that language access was a
priority. The agency, he said, “assists more than 3.5 million people
each year on a wide range of benefits, and when there are specific
complaints, we diligently investigate them and take appropriate

Even before Mr. Bloomberg issued his order, however, the agency’s 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.”

Amy S. Taylor, the lawyer who filed the suit on behalf of 12
plaintiffs, said, “There’s a stark divide between what the agencies
have on paper and what happens on the front lines.” The suit has not
yet gone to trial.

The mayor’s executive order required 37 city offices and agencies to
develop plans on language services and to train workers to ensure that
the services were made available. No extra money was set aside, so
many agencies, like the Department of Aging, recruited multilingual
volunteers among their staff members.

The mayor’s office says it ensures compliance through visits to field
offices and a sort of secret shopper program in which undercover
inspectors look for multilingual signs and translated documents, among
other things. City officials said the inspectors’ findings would be
released this year.

“We are providing the tools necessary to implement the language-access
plans, while holding agencies accountable for their service delivery,”
said Elizabeth Weinstein, the city’s director of agency services.

According to Ms. Weinstein, 84 percent of the agencies have started to
train staff members on what Mr. Bloomberg’s order requires. More than
7,700 frontline workers and supervisors at the Human Resources
Administration, about half of the agency’s work force, have been
trained so far this year and will be retrained before the year ends,
Mr. Doar said. The agency also has an office that ensures that
language services are available and it runs regular compliance checks,
he said.

Advocates for immigrants agree that progress has been made and cite as
a success the city’s 311 help line, which connects callers to
interpreters in more than 100 languages. But they say the message is
still being lost as it trickles down the chain of command.

“Part of the challenge is that it takes repeated training, and it
takes funding to make this become second nature to front-desk
government workers,” said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the
New York Immigration Coalition. Each missed opportunity to make the
right connections, she added, “can lead to major consequences for the
individual who is trying to make it through the system.”

Mercedes Cruz, 47, an immigrant from Honduras who lives with her three
children in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, is one of the plaintiffs in the
lawsuit against the Human Resources Administration.

She first applied for food stamps and cash assistance in 2007 at an
agency office in Coney Island, and in her 20 or more visits there over
two years, she said, she was never offered an interpreter — not even
after her lawyer wrote a letter saying that the agency was required to
provide one. She ultimately received benefits, but only after a wait
of several months and absences from school by her oldest son, a
sophomore at Brooklyn College, who translated for her.

“It shouldn’t be so difficult to get the help I need and qualify for,”
she said.

Zena Kim oversees a small team of lawyers at the MinKwon Center for
Community Action, a Flushing, Queens-based community group that is
another plaintiff. She has to devote considerable time helping older,
unemployed Korean immigrants fill out application forms for public
benefits because, Ms. Kim said, so many of them refuse to go to the
Human Resources Agency alone.

“They find the process very daunting — that they have to speak English
and do an interview in English,” she said.

Linda Lee, an outreach coordinator at MinKwon who handles health and
labor issues and organizes workshops, does the same for Chinese
speakers and sometimes accompanies them to the agency’s offices to
turn in applications and make sure all requirements have been
satisfied. “We’re doing the full intake just like a social worker will
do if we were at an H.R.A. office,” Ms. Lee said. “The thing is,
that’s not our job. That’s the city’s job. The mayor himself said so.”


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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