Nine-Year-Old City Language Law May Soon Be Enforced

Illustration by Rini Templeton

Somewhere inside this year’s $6.5 billion budget is a small item that some civil rights and immigrant rights activists are calling “past due” and “a big milestone.”

They’re referring to the $400,000 approved by the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee for hiring four full-time translators to help the city comply with its own language access ordinance.

“It’s our right to be able to communicate with city agencies,” said longtime language access activist and District 10 supervisorial candidate Marlene Tran. “I am glad they are moving in the right direction.”

Tran said that the city has been out of compliance with the law since it passed in 2001. Last year the ordinance was amended, renamed the Language Access Ordinance by the Board of Supervisors, and signed into law by Mayor Gavin Newsom, but those changes didn’t do enough to enforce implementation.

According to the annual compliance report (PDF) produced by the Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs, most city departments have made good-faith efforts to comply. “Some…have excelled,” the report says. “Some have struggled, and others continue to file the same reports from year to year without adjusting their plans to meet increased demand.”

The consequences of not having city translators can be steep, Tran said. She recalled that years ago one of her English-language students died when a family member didn’t call 911 because he didn’t speak English. More recently, she said, a man who was allegedly beaten on a Muni bus was scared to testify against the perpetrator because he did not speak English.

Tran added that the biggest issues are with Muni and SFMTA. Muni doesn’t have adequate translation on transfers or buses, she said. At a recent community meeting, a police officer struggled to speak Cantonese despite the large number of native Cantonese speakers in San Francisco.

If an advisory report (PDF) produced by the group Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Office of Immigrant Affairs becomes the template for implementating the law, the city will soon have its own centralized program providing translators and interpreters at public meetings and for agency signs and documents.

The budget proposal has not yet been adopted by the mayor. But it has wide support, from both moderates like Carmen Chu and progressives like David Chiu, who sponsored the measure last year. “Without actual funding for translators and interpreters,” said Chiu, “true language access cannot occur in our great city — one of the most diverse in the country.”

Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, hopes the proposal is adopted but realizes that even with wide support it could become controversial — especially in a city with a $483 million budget deficit.

But, Pan points out, demand for translation services is a real issue. In San Francisco, 37 percent of all residents are foreign-born. In the Mission that number is 45 percent.

And the law did pass nine years ago. “If not now,” he asks, “when?”

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One Comment

  1. ian

    interesting article, has made me rethink my opinions on the subject. very interesting statistic on foreign born residents in SF and the mission..

    thanks !

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