[lg policy] California: Policy seeks to penetrate language barrier in Long Beach

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Aug 20 21:31:47 UTC 2013

Policy seeks to penetrate language barrier in Long Beach

By Eric Bradley, Staff Writer

POSTED: 08/07/13, 6:09 PM PDT |

LONG BEACH - Esther del Valle wants to be a part of the civic process in
Long Beach.

But the 50-year-old del Valle, who was born in Mexico and has lived here
for 14 years, only has a basic understanding of English. If she wants to
voice her opinion at a government meeting, she must rely on an interpreter
who often cannot be provided on short notice.

And then there are the difficulties presented by the conflicting nuances of
English and Spanish.

"A lot of times I find myself in the situation where I say something in
English or what I say in Spanish is misinterpreted," del Valle said.

Spurred by community advocates and stories like those shared by del Valle,
Long Beach has been working for almost two years on a citywide plan to
better serve its non-English language residents.

The City Council will consider approving the policy on Aug. 13, but
community groups are asking that council members revise the new umbrella
rules because they say the plan does not make meaningful changes for
residents who are limited English proficient, or LEP.

Susanne Browne of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles said the state
standards used to formulate the policy set an "unreasonably" high threshold
for inclusion of 5 percent, or 21,480 residents, who are limited-English

Only Spanish LEP speakers qualify, with 62,814 in Long Beach, according to
U.S. Census data. There are 8,607 Khmer speakers, 5,181 Tagalog speakers
and thousands of Thai, Vietnamese, Urdu and Gujarati speakers with
limited-English proficiency living in the city.

Additionally, the rules make the city manager responsible for determining
what vital documents are translated.

"That doesn't set any clear standards even for access for Spanish
speakers," Browne said. "I don't even think for Spanish speakers this could
be considered a victory."

Long Beach already offers a wide range of services for its non-English
language residents, spending about $900,000 annually on translation and

Many city forms and services are available in multiple languages, and
neighborhood resource centers have staff and equipment that help with
on-site translation.

For elections, the City Clerk's Office provides voting information in
English, Spanish, Khmer, Tagalog, Vietnamese and Korean.

The city also maintains a database of about 3,000 employees with linguistic
skills, out of a total of about 6,000.

Deputy Director of Development Services Angela Reynolds said the new policy
augments what it is now in place.

The proposed plan allocates an additional $257,225 to language access to
provide more translated written materials, funding for meeting
interpretation upon request, recorded telephonic messages and compliance

Also included is $549,956 in "best efforts" recommendations that council
could choose from that would hire bilingual employees in point-of-contact
positions, train staff translators and educate the public on the city's
language access policy, among other items.

"I think we have a great start here." Reynolds said. "We wrote the policy
to give council a starting point."

USA Today named Long Beach the most diverse in a study of the 65 largest
U.S. cities, a distinction often promoted by city officials.

More than 45 percent of those living in Long Beach speak a language other
than English at home, according to U.S. census data.

If officials are going to celebrate the city's culture, Browne said, they
should approve a policy that is more inclusive and not "hyper-focused" on

"What we should be looking at is the cost to the health and safety of the
residents of this city if we don't have a proper language access policy,"
said Browne.

While Reynolds acknowledged cost is a concern -- Long Beach has battled
multimillion dollar deficits for years -- she disagreed that the plan is
driven by expense.

"Council will see the reality of what we currently do," said Reynolds. "As
you add languages, the costs go up exponentially."

Browne and a coalition including the Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition,
Housing Long Beach, Centro CHA and United Cambodian Community are
recommending a 5,000-resident threshold for the language policy and want to
see a plan returned for consideration in 60-90 days.

Setting a timeframe is important, advocates said, because the initial
effort was supposed to take 120 days. According to officials, honing the
policy and meeting with stakeholders lengthened the process.

Though Browne said litigation is not their intent, the groups are concerned
that the regulations as written don't comply with federal and state law
prohibiting agencies from discriminating on the basis of race, color,
national origin or ethnic group identification.

"Our goal is to work with the city to come up with a collaborative policy
that meets the needs of the residents of Long Beach," Browne said.

"When we see a policy that is so insufficient, we feel it's important to
point out that it doesn't meet the basic requirements of the law."

Reynolds said the rules were written in cooperation with the City
Attorney's Office and all departments that receive federal funds comply
with the law.

As city officials and advocates disagree on the best way forward, residents
like del Valle are left in between.

"Although they may not always be the best," del Valle said. "I will keep
using the resources available to me because it's important for me to voice
my concerns about the city I live in even though sometimes I don't feel
like my voice is always heard."

Eric Bradley can be reached at 562-499-1254

Staff Writer Beatriz Valenzuela contributed to this report.

eric.bradley at presstelegram.com


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