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.

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.