Speak English? If not, city has sweeping plan
From providing translations for residents dealing with city agencies, to a bill that would require pharmacies to provide prescription information in languages spoken in every city community, there’s a growing movement spearheaded by the Bloomberg administration and some City Council members to dramatically widen the requirements for translation services.
Advocates of the legislation, many of whom have been fighting for years to get the city and state to be more inclusive for people with limited English proficiency (LEPs), say the requirements are essential in removing a fundamental barrier to citizenship. They point to studies that show immigrants fuel economic growth and help build the middle class. The policies, other say, are also an indication of the growing political clout of the immigrant community — and the politicians who court their votes.
But some feel the measures go too far and cost too much — especially at a time when the city faces a bare-bones budget that includes thousands of layoffs, closing fire companies, shuttering daycare centers, and gutting funding to libraries and cultural institutions.
The debate over such policies focuses on a controversial issue in city politics. And as the recession lingers, experts predict issues of race and citizenship may become inflamed in a city comprised of hundreds of ethnic groups.
Council Minority Leader James Oddo (R-Mid-Island) believes it’s a simple matter of fiscal practicality: Tens of millions that will be spent on city translation services could be used to keep firehouses open, restore services at senior centers or forego cuts to city daycare.
“Where does it all end? While I’m not generally a believer in the slippery slope argument, my colleagues are starting to make me a believer by proposing these schemes,” Oddo said.
Oddo was referring to a Council bill introduced last week that would force chain pharmacies to provide translation assistance to customers. Under the terms of such a law, for example, a pharmacy in Port Richmond would need to have employees fluent in Spanish to ensure its customers understand how to administer their medications; a South Beach pharmacy may need a Russian translator; and one in Tompkinsville would need someone who could speak Tamil or Sinhala to help its Sri Lankan customers.
The pharmacies would have to provide prescription labels and directions regarding medication dosage and safety information in languages spoken by over 1 percent of their respective communities’ population.
Translation services would not be mandated at smaller pharmacies, but those businesses would have to provide a notification of three nearby pharmacies that do offer translations. A failure to comply would result in fines.
THE MAYOR’S ORDER
All 37 city agencies face an even greater challenge under an executive order by Mayor Michael Bloomberg last July to translate essential public documents, pamphlets and forms into six of the most widely spoken foreign languages, as well as provide a telephone-based service that can link immigrants with interpreters who speak dozens of other less-common languages, like Urdu, Hindi and Arabic.
Oddo asked the city’s Independent Budget Office (IBO) to evaluate the cost of implementing such services, but so far it has not been able to come up with any dollar figure. The problem, officials there told the councilman, is that agencies themselves are still trying to figure out the scope and costs of such services.
The Department of Education began providing similar services for parents three years ago, at a cost of about $12 million annually.
“I don’t see the logic. We are closing firehouses, but spending tens of millions on translation services?” Oddo said. “And it’s not just the fiscal side. We have to ask ourselves: Are we doing New Yorkers and the people we are all trying to help a disservice in the long run?”
Oddo and some others would rather see some of that money spent on English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to help immigrants transition to U.S. citizenship. According to the New York Immigration Coalition, about one million New Yorkers are not yet proficient in English, yet the government provides fewer than 60,000 spaces in free or low-cost ESL classes each year. The recent state budget cut funding for such programs by more than $2 million.
South Shore Republican Vincent Ignizio called the pharmacy bill and other translation mandates “a disincentive for people to truly assimilate into the melting pot of New York City and communicate as one.”
Ericka D. Stallings, a housing Advocacy Coordinator for the New York Immigration Coalition, said studies do not support that claim — and, in fact, show immigrants are learning English faster than ever before.
A study by the Fiscal Policy Institute found that immigrants contribute $229 billion to the state’s economy in 2006, or about 22.4 percent of the Gross Domestic Product that year. The longer they stay in the country, the more English they learn and fuel more of the economic growth, the study concluded.
According to the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, New Yorkers speak more than 200 languages, and in nearly half of all households, English is not the primary language. Since the city receives more than 20 million calls from residents each year, communication can often be a challenge.
The cost of providing language access could be far less than the cost of government inefficiency when it cannot solve problems or accomplish things for its citizens because of language barriers, Ms. Stallings added.
Bloomberg has been a big advocate of language access in government. The mayor has been learning Spanish since he first ran for office eight years ago, and he now summarizes every press event in Spanish. Most pundits see it as a ploy to woo Spanish-speaking voters. The powerful Latino constituency has grown to more than 860,000 out of the total of more than 4.2 million, according to Voter Contact Services, which processes voter files.