NJ government agencies expected to use these 15 languages ​​under new plan

New Jersey is known for the great diversity of its people, which Teresa Ruiz says makes the state “unique and powerful.”

“There are also a myriad of different languages, some of which have a better grasp (of English) and some of which do not,” added Ruiz, the majority leader in the state Senate.

More than 150 languages ​​are spoken in the Garden State, with about a third of residents living in households that speak a language other than English. For many of them, Ruiz said, it is intimidating to seek help from a government agency, where documents and services are available primarily only in English or Spanish.

But Ruiz and a number of supporters are looking to change that.

The Essex County Democrat introduced a bill that would require state government agencies and departments to provide documents and translation services in the 15 most widely spoken non-English languages ​​in New Jersey, considered the one of the most diverse states in the United States.

These languages, according to lawyers and U.S. Census information, are, in order of how often they are spoken: Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), Korean, Portuguese, Gujarati, Arabic, Polish, Haitian, Russian , Hindi, Tagalog, Italian, Vietnamese, Urdu and French.

“We need to be aware that these communities have equally equal access to state government, in a way that they can understand,” Ruiz told NJ Advance Media. “We want to make sure that communities looking for information and resources have it at their fingertips.”

Proponents say language access is a problem across the United States, although some states have improved. California, Hawaii and New York all require state documents to be translated into their 10 most spoken languages.

If this bill is enacted, New Jersey would have the broadest law.

Language access is another issue that has taken on added urgency in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a crisis that has left countless New Jerseyans seeking help with unemployment, testing , vaccinations, housing, etc.

Proponents say the proposal would help non-English speakers get more accurate and timely information, encourage them to engage more in their communities and make government more efficient.

“It helps build trust in the public institutions meant to keep us safe,” said Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “If there’s one state that needs a language access plan, it’s New Jersey.”

One hurdle he will likely face: cost concerns. Although there is no budget analysis available for the measure (S2459) yet, it would likely be costly.

The proposal calls for using federal coronavirus aid to help cover the price.

“I’m not trying to create a burden. As a government, there is an opportunity to do better,” said Ruiz, who in January became the first woman of color to hold the position in state history and the highest-ranked Latina in the state. history of the New Jersey Legislative Assembly.

Torres also expects critics to say the move would discourage people from learning English and that the money should be spent on English lessons instead.

“That’s not to say there shouldn’t be ESL programs,” the lawyer said. “But when you think about technical language on state documents, (that programming is) a much, much higher investment and cost to the state. This move opens immediate access.

There is no universal translation requirement among New Jersey state government departments. Spanish, spoken by about 16% of residents, is the most common language other than English translated at state agencies.

“Someone who goes to the Department of Labor in the morning and updates a document at the MVC in the afternoon may have completely different translation experiences,” Torres said.

That’s even though about 32% of New Jersey residents ages 5 and older — about 2.9 million people — speak a language other than English, according to the 2020 U.S. Community Census. By comparison, the number is 21% nationally.

And about 12 percent of New Jersey residents — about 1.1 million people — speak “less than very good” English.

Even if this bill passes, it would only cover about 10% of the languages ​​spoken in the state.

Still, Priscilla Monica Marin, executive director of the New Jersey Consortium for Immigrant Children, said, “This is the kind of access needed to help people who need help the most.”

“It makes New Jersey better,” Marin said. “A fairer, more inclusive New Jersey.”

Ruiz noted that the bill would have also helped his mother, who worked in the corporate world and only spoke English while on the job.

“If she were to call about health insurance or the bank, she would clearly understand English,” the lawmaker said. “But if someone explained it to her in detail in Spanish, she would come away with a better understanding of the real problem.”

Additionally, more translations would be a lifeline for residents during emergencies such as Hurricane Ida, helping to ensure information is “ready and at the ready right away,” Torres said.

Peg Kinsell, policy director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, which advocates for diversity in children and families, said there were often misunderstandings due to language barriers.

For example, she said, when a family recently asked for help with translation at a school, the staff member brought in was a member of their community and “had access to confidential information that they don’t know about.” ‘shouldn’t have known’.

“It made mom very uncomfortable,” Kinsell said.

Alejandra Sorto, campaign strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said more translation services were helpful when authorities implemented a law last year allowing undocumented immigrants from New Jersey to obtain a driver’s license.

“We had a number of instances where someone was not offered interpretation in their language,” Sorto said. “This forced them to leave without having obtained a permit. … How can you interact with an agency you cannot communicate with? »

Meanwhile, advocates say the bill would be especially helpful to the Asian American Pacific Islander population, New Jersey’s fastest growing community, with a 44% increase since 2010.

Rania Mustafa, executive director of the Palestinian American Community Center in Clifton, said her organization often receives calls from agencies trying to communicate with Arab residents. When someone at the center tells them they can translate Arabic, there is a “sigh of relief” on the phone, Mustafa said.

“Often people don’t seek services elsewhere because they know they won’t have that language,” she said.

The proposal has not yet been scheduled for a hearing in the Democratic-controlled state legislature. The Senate and Assembly would have to pass it before Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, can decide whether or not to sign it.

Ruiz said she plans to discuss the matter with Murphy and expects it to “take some time to prepare” and to be “done properly.”

Under the bill, services would be installed on an ongoing basis, with translations for the 10 most widely spoken non-English languages ​​offered within a year of the measure taking effect and the remaining five within two years. .

Ruiz said she was open to changes, such as covering only five languages ​​over the next three years.

“The key here is to get to a place where we do something,” the senator said.

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Brent Johnson can be attached to [email protected]. Follow him on @johnsb01.

Ashley C. Reynolds