Lack of Language Access Is a Nationwide Crisis

Angelo Franco


In August 2012, Arlet Macareno lay in a heap at the bottom of the stairs of her apartment building in Staten Island. That is where her niece found her and called 911. Arlet tried to tell the responding officers that her husband had pushed her down, that she was in danger and she needed help. “I need someone to translate,” Arlet said in her frantic, native Spanish. The police decided to use her 22-year-old niece as an unofficial interpreter, which resulted in Arlet being arrested and taken to the precinct, bruised and barefoot. “Cállate la boca (shut your mouth),” the officers responded in broken Spanish when she tried to protest.


Arlet spent the night in jail and, desperate to return to her 7-year-old son, pleaded guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct. She went home to her son and her abusive husband, whom the police had told to go back to sleep the night before when they arrested Arlet.


The NYPD is the largest police force in the nation with over 36,000 officers and 18,000 civilian employees. Among its ranks, some 19,000 officers speak as many as 70 languages other than English. But in a polyglot city like New York with a gargantuan population of 8.5 million people, that may not be enough. According to the Census Bureau, there are as many as 1.8 million Limited English Proficient (LEP) persons in New York City alone – that is almost 1 in every 4 persons that can’t communicate in English proficiently (and more than half the entire population speaks a language other than English at home). In order to better serve this growing population, then-mayor Michael Bloomberg expanded the city’s language access policy in 2008. By 2009, when the Language Access Plan was published (since revised and updated), the city was, by law, requiring officers who respond to a scene where interpretation services are needed to find and provide them.


It was only since June of 2012, just months before Arlet’s incident, that New York City had implemented Language Line services, supplying city officials and police officers with 24/7 access to telephonic interpretation when responding to calls that require them.


New York is not the only American city grappling with insufficient access to language services and interpreters. It’s a nationwide crisis that underscores an urgent need for more professional interpreters and translators to assist the growing immigrant population that are limited English proficient. In some California counties, the shortage of qualified interpreters is so severe it may violate constitutional law.


In Santa Clara County in the Bay Area, interpreters are concerned that the lack of professional linguists is essentially creating a two-tier justice system. LEP persons who do not have access to language interpretation either keep getting their hearing delayed or cannot place any official claims because there aren’t enough interpreters to help them. California is one of the states that require interpreters to be certified to interpret in court when assisting in official government affairs, such as trials and hearings.



The California Federation of Interpreters says that Santa Clara County needs at least seven certified interpreters working daily at the county’s superior court. Most of the time, there are only five interpreters darting from proffers to sentencing hearings attempting to cover them all. Exhaustion prevents interpreters from effectively translating for both parties, and rushing from courtroom to courtroom causes delays which, in turn, cost the courts money and time. This lack of language access is not only detrimental to law enforcement from a victim’s point of view but from charged defendants as well, who can win cases on appeal claiming they did not understand the case against them.


Meanwhile, even though federal and state laws mandate that all patients who need a medical interpreter be provided with one, California does not specifically spell out just how qualified a medical interpreter needs to be. This specificity proves crucial when healthcare providers are scurrying to supply patients with well-qualified interpreters in order to comply with the law. The issue of using non-certified interpreters becomes even more pronounced when dealing with languages other than Spanish, the most widely spoken language in California after English.


There are approximately 8 million LEP people in the state of California, according to the Census Bureau. Of these, more than half are Spanish speakers which count with just under 600 certified medical interpreters in the state – that’s about one interpreter for every 6,500 people. In contrast, there are nearly 300,000 Vietnamese speakers in the Golden State. Qualified Vietnamese medical interpreters: nine. For Tagalog speakers, the numbers are even more dismal; there is only one certified medical interpreter for the whole LEP Filipino community, which amounts to about 228,000. Because of this deficiency, healthcare providers often resort to using uncertified interpreters to keep up with the demand, which may result in mistranslations and misdiagnoses.


In 2010, a report from UC Berkeley School of Public Health and National Health Law Program examined 1,373 claims of malpractice in the state of California. The study found that 35 of these cases, involving severe medical trauma and death, were the direct result of poor medical interpreting. In one case, a child who would later die from respiratory arrest provided her own interpreting between the doctors and her parents. This problem was more apparent with patients of Asian descent, as medical providers were often unable to understand the need for the distinction between Indo-Asian languages, such as Mandarin, Cantonese, and other Chinese dialects, for example.


Also in 2010, the federal government began investigating the California court system after two Korean-speaking women in Los Angeles alleged they were denied court interpreters. This, as is the case with Santa Clara County, may have denied them their civil rights, which prohibit discrimination based on national origin. As a result, the state implemented its own language plan—similar to New York City’s—in an attempt to provide interpreters to all non-English speakers who needed them in court affairs.


Legal aid lawyers filed a complaint on behalf of the two Los Angeles women, one of whom was an elderly sexual assault victim seeking a restraining order against her abuser and the other was a single mother seeking child support. The Los Angeles Superior Court denied them interpreters on the basis that the court was not mandated to provide language interpretation for such cases and, if they wished, the victims could provide their own interpreters out of pocket or use a friend or a family member for this purpose. The state of California had long provided interpreters for juvenile and criminal cases, but only recently have the courts been mandated to provide language solutions for civil cases as well. The Justice Department and the Los Angeles County Superior Court reached an agreement to provide accurate language assistance to all LEP persons as recently as late 2016. Depending on the area, language needs vary; some require common world languages such as a Farsi, Russian, American Sign, and Arabic. But other areas demand rarer tongues, such as Malayalam, Hmong, Mixteco, and even dialects of the Aleutian Islands.  


This expansion into offering less-common languages is not an isolated development. Just last summer, New York City began to require that all public agencies providing direct public and emergency services translate all the documents they distribute into four additional languages, bringing the total “most commonly used” languages in the city to 10. The local government added Arabic, Urdu, French, and Polish to the roster that had previously included—thanks to the 2008 language plan mentioned above—Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Bengali, Haitian Creole, and Korean. But implementation does not necessarily equate widespread usage. Despite the training that government officials and police officers must take on how and when to use these services available to them, the language access plan remains underused, even when it involves languages as common as Spanish.


In May 2013, Deisy Garcia filed a police report. An undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, Deisy wrote on the report that she feared for hers and her two daughters’ lives because her husband had threatened to kill her. The 21-year-old, who didn’t speak English, wrote the report in Spanish. A few months later, at the end of November, Deisy called 911 to report that her husband was being violent and, once again, she filed a police report in Spanish. Both police reports were not translated into English and so they were never officially marked to be investigated or followed-up on. Less than two months later, Deisy’s husband was caught in Texas trying to flee to Mexico after he stabbed and killed Deisy and their two daughters. The children were 1 and 2 years old. Following the incident, the police department sent out a staff memo stating that all reports should be transcribed and translated to guarantee that appropriate police services are provided.


The U.S. Department of Justice concluded in a 2010 investigation into the NYPD that the department was not fully in compliance with the Civil Rights Act because of its poor track record providing language solutions. Two years later, the Justice Department led a follow-up investigation, determining in July of 2012 that the NYPD had taken significant steps to address its language access issues and was now in substantial compliance with civil right requirements. Three weeks later, Arlet’s husband would push her down the stairs.


Author Bio:


Angelo Franco is Highbrow Magazine’s chief features writer.


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