Language barriers remain problem for state services


NJ Spotlight News

Paying a phone or electricity bill might not seem like a task for a child. But for Laura Bustamante, the policy and campaign manager for the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, that was her reality growing up because her parents didn’t speak English very well.

“I would have to sometimes miss out on sports or extracurricular activities, and sometimes even school, so I was able to show up and translate for my parents, whether … they were doing something at the DMV (or) they were doing something for my brother,” said Bustamante.

“And that has this pressure to essentially be the adult in the family,” she added.

Bustamante is not alone. About 155 languages are spoken in the state. Over a third of New Jerseyans over 5 years old speak a language other than English at home. About 12% of residents, or over 1 million people, say they don’t speak English very well, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey.

This language barrier is even more impenetrable at the state level. Trying to find documents or applications for benefits and services from state agencies or navigating their websites proves to be a challenge because information is rarely translated. State websites offer Google Translate, which produces mediocre results at best.

Advocates say that non-English speakers have been locked out of government resources for decades. That problem was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, they comment, when it became essential to access information about the virus or to find applications for financial assistance.

A bill (S-2459) introduced by Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) in May, could alleviate the issue. It would mandate government agencies provide translations for the 15 most commonly spoken languages in New Jersey and use American Rescue Plan money to fund the program.

Bustamante, representing her organization and its coalition, highlighted the bill in her testimony last week during public hearings about how to use the remaining $1 billion of American Rescue Plan funding available to New Jersey. But the bill hasn’t moved since it was introduced in May; summers are notoriously slow in Trenton.

Money talks

Translating information that state agencies provide — whether it’s applications, websites or public service announcements — will be a costly task. There’s already some funding for language access, although it’s not clear if there will be more.

Ruiz and Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer (D-Somerset), a sponsor of the Assembly version of the language access bill, introduced a budget resolution ahead of the June 30 deadline to add $10 million for state agencies to translate their documents and applications, but the final version of the budget shows that just $500,000 was set aside for language access.

The state Treasury department told NJ Spotlight News that the $500,000 will come from state funds, and that it is “working to determine the best way to utilize the funds across State agencies,” said Melinda Caliendo, a spokesperson for the department.

It’s unclear how, and if, American Rescue Plan money will also be used to expand funding for language access.

“This is all a step in the right direction … this works to make all of our government services more accessible in different languages,” said Jaffer in an interview with NJ Spotlight News, adding that the language access is a top priority of hers so that the state government can better serve New Jerseyans.

Some translations, but not enough

As of today, government agencies are likely to have some documents available in Spanish — the Motor Vehicle Commission’s driving manual is one example. And most websites offer a translation option through Google Translate. But on the Department of Health’s website, for instance, the word “translate” is written in English. Its “select language” option is also written in English, followed by a lengthy disclaimer also written in English. And as NJ Spotlight News noted in a previous story about the language access bill, the translation function doesn’t work on applications or forms on these state government websites.

Abbire Sabbagh, the community outreach and Palestine education director of the Palestinian American Community Center, said her group regularly sees residents looking for help with translating government applications.

“We often get community members who come to our center for help with translation, or just help with government documents or applications, especially when COVID hit and there was a lot of COVID relief applications,” said Sabbagh. “But … if you don’t speak English, then you didn’t really know how to fill them out, or what they were and what you needed.”

As time goes on with no clear answers about how language barriers will be removed, advocates fear the issue will only be exacerbated. Jeffrey Chang of AAPI Montclair told NJ Spotlight News that 91% of Latino-owned businesses and 75% of Asian-owned businesses had “little chance of obtaining a Paycheck Protection Program loan” during the height of the pandemic because they lacked a relationship with a bank or a credit union, citing a 2020 study by McKinsey.

The study shows that language barriers also prevented Asian people from “participating in relief programs.” Further, Chang noted that Asians and Asian Americans represent a large swath of cultures and languages, all with different needs.

“Ultimately, it’s not just about translating documents … It’s also committing to doing the outreach — looking at specific census tracts, looking at where our communities are concentrated,” Chang said.

No time to waste

And for Sabbagh, it’s imperative the bill is passed as soon as possible. Census data shows that the state is becoming increasingly more diverse, a fact government officials have touted. Sabbagh says more and more people may be coming to New Jersey with what is happening in Syria and Palestine, for example, as they “are forced out of their home country to come here, and then they have to endure even more.”

So what more do these communities need to do to prove that they need services in their native language, Sabbagh asked.

“…Does that mean that we don’t matter enough? Does that mean that … our communities don’t deserve these services? I think the longer it takes for our community to be represented in that way, the more that these thoughts, or these feelings grow, (that we are) not deserving of it,” she said.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-08-12 02:50:10 -0700