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City to Immigrants: English Only!

You just decided to read this article. If you’ve gotten this far without too much trouble, then you probably have a proficiency in the English language. And by being able to speak English, you can at least take the first step in navigating New York City’s notoriously bureaucratic social services, should you need public assistance or emergency care.

Protests at City Hall in late April supporting Intro 38. Photo by Williams Cole.
Protests at City Hall in late April supporting Intro 38. Photo by Williams Cole.

But what if you speak little or no English at all, and are perhaps trying to learn it in between multiple jobs (if you can find an ESL class that admits you)? What if you need to communicate vital information in the emergency room or get food stamps to feed your children? What if you need public assistance to get back on your feet but are confronted with complicated, prying, and labyrinthine application forms published only in English?

As new waves of arrivals settle into a city built by immigrants, their difficulties accessing public support services because of language barriers continue to grow. According to the 2000 census, nearly a quarter of New Yorkers have difficulty speaking English or do not speak it at all, and 66 percent of residents are either immigrants or the children of immigrants.

Over the last decade, the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) has been hit with multiple lawsuits that charge it with intentionally detering and discouraging new immigrants from accessing assistance as a method of decreasing social service expenditure. “It’s hard enough if you are an expert in navigating bureaucracies and speak perfect English to apply for help,” says Andrew Friedman, co-director of the Bushwick-based community group Make the Road By Walking, but “if you don’t speak English and are not good with bureaucracies, you are double-alienated.” Through a multi-pronged campaign that has evolved through participatory action, lawsuits, and protests, Make the Road By Walking has been at the forefront of organizing around language access. The group is currently supporting a bill before the City Council that would guarantee low-income immigrants the right to translation services in hospitals, job centers, and other social service venues.

Not A Backburner Issue

As the 2000 Census showed, diversity of global cultures and languages is fundamental to a New York City quite different from that represented in Seinfeld or Friends. Almost half of New York speaks a language other than English at home. The most recent influx of new groups includes many from different regions of the former Soviet Union, China, and Southeast Asia. “There is a new language diversity that has to be addressed,” says Friedman. “When you are dealing with a slightly decaying city bureaucracy and an administration not proactive on immigration, these new languages are not necessarily on the radar.” Yet social service agencies and public hospitals, the very places that new immigrants need, lack extensive translation services. This deficit has had devastating results, as illustrated in the well-known case of a 5-year-old girl who spent hours in the ER at Woodhull Hospital with a nickel stuck in her throat because medical staff were unable to communicate with her mother.

Yet after many years and thousands of complaints, Make the Road By Walking and other organizations celebrated earlier this year when state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced a binding agreement with Woodhull Hospital and Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, both of which will improve services for non-English speaking patients by hiring more translators and providing key documents in a number of languages, including Chinese, Creole, and Polish. While this victory is significant, there are still more than 60 hospitals in the city that don’t offer such basic access.

The current major legislation to go to the City Council is called Equal Access to Health and Human Services. Also known as Intro 38, it guarantees access to city services to non-English speakers by providing translation and interpretation services, and requires agencies that provide benefits like Medicaid, food stamps, and public assistance to record how many New Yorkers served by these offices need language assistance. Intro 38 would also ensure staff translators and translated written materials in the most commonly requested languages— Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Creole, Korean, and Arabic.

Advocates of this legislation argue that besides making city services more efficient, the bill would actually bring federal money to New York in the form of food stamps, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Proponents also say the law would save the city money from costs incurred by lawsuits, emergency room expenses, and increased demand at food pantries and homeless shelters. Projected to cost $500,000 next year, Intro 38 would be phased in little by little after that, representing only a tiny percentage of the city’s $40 billion budget.

Even though Intro 38 is supported by 116 community groups, unions including SEIU Locals 1199 and 32BJ, and the vast majority of City Council members, word is that Mayor Bloomberg will oppose it and veto any bill passed by the council. Given the majority, the council could override the mayor’s veto, but Council Speaker Gifford Miller has yet to support Intro 38, thereby endangering its chance of getting off the ground.

In response to a request from the Brooklyn Rail, Council Speaker Gifford Miller issued the following statement:

Intro 38 is an important bill that would provide language assistance services for New Yorkers seeking a wide array of government services. Accordingly, the council has scheduled a hearing immediately following the summer recess at which time we will hear from community members and the agencies that this bill would affect. Of course, during this time of fiscal crisis and widespread cuts in services, any additional programs have to be carefully evaluated and weighed in the overall context of protecting core services for all New Yorkers. That is precisely what we will do as we look at the potential financial impact of the bill.

While money is certainly an issue, the amount required by Intro 38 for the first year of implementation is so small that it is equivalent to the salaries of only a few mayoral or City Council staffers. For proponents, the concern is about non-action on the bill by the council, something that Miller has a lot of control over. “If Miller signs on before the September 16 hearings in the Council, it has a good chance of going through,” says Friedman, “If he doesn’t focus on it, though, non-action could kill it.” There is speculation that Miller, a possible mayoral contender, is apprehensive about signing on because Bloomberg will try to paint him as a “big spender.”

Hostility toward the urban poor, though nothing new, was exacerbated during the Giuliani years. In the late 1990s, the mandate of HRA Commissioner Jason Turner (a Giuliani appointee) was to cut public assistance roles drastically. The Bloomberg administration has maintained Turner’s philosophy of deterring lower-income residents from using city services, albeit with a different tack. Instead of Turner’s outright hostility, the Bloomberg administration’s approach is to pretend that the city’s poor don’t exist. “Poor people’s issues are not on the radar,” Friedman notes. “But if redevelopment of the West Side comes up, the attitude is like ‘anything you want you can have.’”

Just Learn English? It’s Not So Simple

Most conservatives and even many liberals argue that non-English speaking immigrants should simply learn the language. Of course, the issue is much more complex and multi-faceted than the typical right-wing position. Most immigrants want to learn English but it takes time, especially when they are faced with trying to survive through low-wage work in an economically hostile city. Where is the logic in denying families and children access to food stamps while they try to learn a second language? Despite what the Manhattan Institute and the New York Post might say, people don’t enjoy living on welfare, they are simply able to exist on it.

Compounding the issue, budgets for ESL training are being cut all across the city, even though there is a massive demand for classes. According to the New York Immigration Coalition, more than 80 percent of the demands for ESL are left unmet and sometimes hundreds of people show up for a class with only a handful of spots. As it is for people struggling to move out of poverty, education can be a key to immigrant families becoming self-sufficient. In the current high-tech era, education is even more essential for upward mobility. But the ongoing depletion of social services and corresponding obsession with slashing taxes on the wealthy makes the Reagan years look like big government. These directions will only increase the number of people in our society (including, at some point, many reading this) who need social service help for a variety of reasons.

This lack of support for Intro 38, or what amounts to a manageable solution to a problem that a large portion of city residents face, seems short-sighted. Limited access to language translation may remain yet another component of the multi-pronged effort to essentially dissuade and create obstacles for people that need public assistance. A very sad statement about a country—and especially a city—built by the sweat and blood of immigrants.

For more information about the Equal Access to Health & Human Services Bill (Intro 38), and NYC’s language access issues in general, contact the following organizations:
Central Labor Council

Make the Road By Walking

telephone (718) 418-7690

New York Immigration Coalition

telephone (212) 627-2227

Speaker Gifford Miller City Hall, New York, NY 10007 telephone (212) 535.5554


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN-JUL 2003

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