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How Language Fits Into the Immigration Issue

The dramatic rise in the number of people who speak limited English has prompted very different responses from local governments.

When Palermo Galindo immigrated to the United States as a 15-year-old, he knew almost no English. What he did know were the challenges that came with being a stranger to his new community, country and language. Thirty years later, Galindo is helping others overcome those struggles by serving the city government of Fort Wayne, Ind., as liaison to the Hispanic and immigrant communities. Among his tasks are promoting health services and English language classes that are available to immigrants. “I’m the result of a lot of people investing in [me],” Galindo says. In his new role, he’s helping the city make a similar investment.

Not long ago, there was no need for a job like Galindo’s. But that was before Fort Wayne and its environs experienced dramatic changes. From 2000 to 2010, the Hispanic population of Allen County -- of which Fort Wayne is the seat -- grew nearly 10 times as fast as the population at large, according to the Census. That echoes a similar demographic shift occurring nationwide for all immigration groups. From 2000 to 2010, the number of people living in the U.S. who speak English “less than very well” increased by 3.9 million.

While immigration is a federal issue, integrating immigrants and bringing them into the fold of American civic life is a local challenge. It’s no longer confined to places like California, New York or Texas -- places that have a long history of absorbing diverse populations. In 21 states, the limited-English population grew by more than 25 percent over the last decade, and during that same time period “61 counties crossed the threshold of having a population of more than 5 percent limited-English speakers,” according to the Census.

In some of those places, the influx of newcomers has caused controversy, with one of the flash points being language. For immigrants, learning English can give them the keys to the kingdom, opening the doors to educational and economic opportunity. Nonspeakers of the country’s common language can find themselves isolated in their new communities -- and resented by their neighbors. Some localities are actively working to help newcomers learn the language while temporarily providing them with services in their native tongue. But others take a different outlook, as evidenced by the proliferation of “English-only” policies approved by localities in an effort to save money and drive away a population viewed as burdensome.

“Now, almost every city in the country faces demographic changes in their communities,” says Ricardo Gambetta of the National League of Cities. “It’s important for local officials to have the political will to make a change in their communities.”

One of the places that have adjusted to change is Marion County, Ind., which includes Indianapolis. The number of limited-English speakers was a scant 3.4 percent of the population in 2000. Ten years later, that population has more than doubled even as the county overall grew by only 5 percent. “It’s a population that can’t be ignored,” says Carlos May, who serves as Indianapolis’ director of Latino Affairs. As he points out, newcomers who don’t speak English are going to be working in the area, driving cars and sending their children to school. “If they’re going to do that, we want them to feel included,” May says. “It’s going to affect us economically.”

Many of May’s efforts focus on making the city more accessible to residents who only speak Spanish. He hosts a public access television program called Somos Indianapolis -- “We are Indianapolis” -- designed to inform non-English speakers about civic issues. He started the annual Indiana Latino Expo, which is now run by a nonprofit, that offers business seminars, education fairs and health information to immigrants.

May says it’s in the local economy’s best interest for immigrants to feel engaged and at home in the city. That way, they’ll spend money in Indianapolis, rather than send it home to their native countries. If an immigrant can get an education and earn a higher salary, he argues, that brings a benefit to the area as a whole. “We want them to reinvest here, pay sales tax and add to the tax base.”

To integrate immigrant populations into the community, a growing number of cities and counties are setting up cabinet-level offices and councils that recommend ways a city can better serve its people. A major tool in that endeavor is the recognition of language obstacles. Azadeh Khalili, former deputy commissioner of New York City’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (OIA), says that the OIA deals with many issues, but “language access is the key.” Typically, immigrants can learn English in three to four years if they attend classes regularly. But during that learning period, governments need to find ways to communicate with them. Without language access, Khalili says, “most immigrants feel the services of the government aren’t accessible to them.”

An executive order from 2000 requires the federal government and governments that are recipients of federal aid -- including virtually every locality -- to provide services to people who speak limited English. But communities have latitude in how to implement those rules, and the extent to which they want to provide services beyond the minimums required by law. One technique being used in some cities is to track which aspects of government have the most contact with non-English speakers and prioritize how they can improve, says Margie McHugh, co-director of the Migration Policy Institute’s (MPI) National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy.

Many local governments also sign contracts with translators to work onsite or by phone. A popular option is Language Line Services, a company many governments pay in order to gain telephone access to translators. The company can provide translators for 170 languages. Experts say translation services are crucial and prevent inappropriate situations, like having a police officer rely on an accused abuser to translate on behalf of his victim or having a Spanish-speaking parent take her child out of school to help with translation.

Those services are typically used by front-line workers who have the most interaction with the public, including police, staffers who work at the desks where residents pay utility bills, and clerks working at departments that provide residents with documents and records. A growing number of communities are also requiring those types of positions to be filled by bilingual employees, greatly eliminating the need for translators.

Others are finding creative ways to bridge that language gap. In the Minneapolis suburbs of Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park, the police departments are recruiting young people from non-English speaking communities into a cadet program, in which the department pays for a portion of the students’ schooling while they work part time. They also move to the front of the line for job openings. In Winston-Salem, N.C., all fire trucks are stacked with cards that allow fire and EMS crews to ask simple questions of Spanish-speaking residents during emergencies. (The words on the cards are written phonetically to help with pronunciation: “koo-on-dough romp-e-oh el aug-wah,” or, “when did your water break?”)

The perceived expense of translation can create issues. Three years ago in Nashville, Tenn., anti-immigration groups were able to force an ultimately unsuccessful ballot measure that would have made English the metro government’s official language. During their campaign, the group’s supporters said it was necessary to help the city save money since some $100,000 a year was being spent on translation. To Mayor Karl Dean’s relief, the measure was defeated. The cost of translation, he says, “is not the biggest economic issue facing the city by any means.”

Nor is it a big economic hit in Loudoun County, Va. There, the population of limited-English speakers more than tripled to an estimated 27,124 over the past decade. But phone interpretation, in-person interpreters and other translation services cost the county only $54,000 in fiscal 2011.

Proponents of language access say that’s money well spent. There would be, they say, inevitable inefficiencies if government officials insisted on interacting solely in English, regardless of their constituents’ language. But it is worth noting that despite the federal mandate from 2000, there are no dedicated federal grants for localities to provide language services, nor is there a federal office charged with coordinating issues like immigrant integration or language access. Some think that should change. “The federal government’s responsibility isn’t just the conditions and terms of people coming into this country,” says Michael Fix, senior vice president and director of studies at MPI. “It’s also determining their success.”

Some cities have taken the lead on educating adult non-English speakers. That role has traditionally been reserved for the school system. But English as a Second Language (ESL) programs for adults have historically had poor results. Many immigrants don’t have the sort of stable schedule that can allow them to attend classes -- usually the result of working multiple jobs. In Littleton, Colo., the city runs a program from its library that pairs adult students with volunteers who work one-on-one with immigrants on English classes and preparation for citizenship exams. Alejandra Harguth, who leads the program, says those efforts have become enormously popular in a city where an estimated 5 percent of the population has trouble with English. “Immigrants started coming out of the woodwork,” Harguth says. “They weren’t hiding, but then we had this resource.”

At the same time, many communities are actively working to create obstacles for immigrants. One of the primary tools: English-only laws that make a locality’s “official” language English and prohibit the translation of some official documents and services. In many cases, those laws are a response to the perceived ills caused by the growing population of undocumented immigrants. But those laws may be putting legal residents in the crossfire too. An Urban Institute study found that 60 percent of legal immigrants who are eligible for citizenship had limited-English proficiency.

In the first decade of this century, more than 100 towns, cities and counties approved policies that are hostile to immigrants, according to a study cited by MPI’s Fix. Among the most popular anti-immigrant policies were language laws, which were considered by about 61 localities and approved by a third of them. Localities have also enacted policies designed to crack down on day laborers, penalize landlords for renting to illegal immigrants and force employers to use a federal database to verify workers’ legal status.

In many cases, local leaders cite the expense of providing services to illegal immigrants as the reason behind those policies. A 2007 study by the Congressional Budget Office notes that illegal immigrants generally aren’t eligible for federal aid programs such as food stamps, Social Security, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Medicaid (except for emergencies). But some state and local services -- mainly law enforcement, health care and education -- must be provided, regardless of an individual’s immigration status, according to federal law. The report goes on to note that most of the time, the costs of those programs that can be attributed to illegal immigrants amount to less than 5 percent of those programs’ total expenditures. Some local leaders see that as a significant figure.

In Frederick County, Md., about an hour outside of Washington, elected leaders are pursuing efforts to ratchet up policies designed to drive illegal immigrants from the community, including an English-only law. “If we’re not mandated by the state or federal government to produce a document in any other language, we’re not going to do so,” says Blaine Young, president of the county commission.

The county’s new approach comes at a time when more residents are likely to need language assistance. According to Census estimates, Frederick County’s limited-English population nearly tripled over the last decade to more than 8,500 residents.

Based on a survey that the school system conducted at Young’s request, he estimates that 5 percent of Frederick County students are the children of illegal immigrants. He doesn’t believe authorized residents should have to subsidize the cost of education for illegal immigrants’ children. Young says he is trying to preserve quality of life in Frederick, which has suffered largely due to the abundance of poor neighborhoods that are home to illegal immigrants. “Frederick County gets labeled by some as the most unfriendly county in the state of Maryland when it comes to illegal aliens,” Young says. “We don’t run from that. We wear it as a badge of honor.”

Francisco Lopez, who leads a coalition of immigrant-rights advocacy groups in Oregon, says it’s not surprising that the increasing visibility of immigrants is creating tensions. “Suddenly the good old small town looks different than it used to,” Lopez says. “It’s a big change, not just in Oregon, but around the country.”

While some cities have embraced the change, more work remains. “There are some municipalities that are doing the right thing,” Lopez says, “but there are some that are still struggling. They’re not up to the challenge yet, especially in the rural areas.” In those cases, Lopez would like to see localities partner with local nonprofits to help with language and integration issues.

The demographic shifts are forcing communities to look at more than just language policies as they try to integrate their new residents. There may be laws and procedures that unintentionally discriminate against some immigrants. In New York, Khalili says, her office worked to overturn a policy that required street vendors to have proof of their permanent resident status (no requirement existed for restaurant owners). In Boulder, Colo., the city tweaked a rule that was intended to prevent overcrowding of college students in group homes but was instead causing stress for immigrant families. “[Localities] need to pull people together across agencies,” says McHugh of MPI’s Center on Immigrant Integration Policy. “Having a coordinated approach is really a significant factor for being successful.”

Many communities are hosting civics classes for immigrants to educate them on everything from how elections work to how to register a business. In Louisville, the city’s Office of Globalization coordinates with various agencies on giving non-English speakers access to housing, medical services and jobs. “People who speak broken English -- usually people won’t give them the time of day,” says Suhas Kulkarni, who leads the office. “If they have somebody to work as a go-between for interviews … it’s extremely helpful.”

As the language barrier falls, newcomers become integrated into a community, New York’s Khalili and Indianapolis’ May argue. Communities that have embraced their non-English speaking newcomers are finding that, in the long run, these immigrants become taxpaying contributors to their new home.

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.
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