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NYC Widens Access to Services for Immigrant Community - 2003-12-16

New York's City Council has passed a bill to widen access to municipal services for people whose understanding of English is limited. The vote is a victory for the city's large immigrant community.

Dozens of members of immigrant and community groups celebrated the anticipated approval of the legislation in front of New York's City Hall.

The new legislation requires city agencies that provide emergency and public assistance programs to offer translation or interpretation services in six languages: Arabic, Chinese, Creole, Korean, Russian and Spanish. The "Equal Access to Human Services Act" also requires the city to provide translations in any other language upon request.

John Liu, New York's first Asian-American City Council member, initially introduced the bill in 2002. "This is a bill that helps us really validate our status as the capital of the world where we will no longer discriminate against people simply because they do not speak English well.

The new legislation reflects the growing political clout of New York's immigrant community.

City officials say 200 languages are spoken in New York.

Every 10 years the United States conducts a national census. Sponsors say the bill is necessary because the most recent, the 2000 census, found that 66 percent of all New Yorkers are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. It also found that 47 percent of New Yorkers speak a language other than English at home. Almost a quarter of the city's population is limited in English proficiency.

Four years ago, a federal study concluded that New York was in violation of federal civil rights statutes because it discriminated against applicants who fell into the "limited English proficient" category. City Council member Bill De Blasio says the bill will help New York comply with federal regulations.

"This is a first step," he said. "When we had these hearings what we heard is hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who could be getting benefits, who could be feeding their families better, who could be getting better health care, who could be getting simply what they deserved and were not getting it simply because of language barriers."

Last week the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg reversed its stance on the bill and came out in support of it after several modifications. The bill will be phased in over five years instead of two as originally demanded. And it will narrow the required translations to six primary languages rather than 22. With the changes, supporters say the legislation will cost the city about $5 million a year. But others predict it will be much higher.