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City falling short on ensuring language access, IG says

City Inspector General Joe Ferguson | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has positioned himself as the defender of illegal immigrants ever since Donald Trump campaigned for president on a promise to build a wall along the Mexican border, order mass deportations and cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities.

But it’s another story when it comes to implementing the city program tailor-made to ensure that Chicago’s nearly 400,000 “limited English proficient” residents can access city services.

That’s the bottom line of Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s latest audit released Wednesday.

Although Chicago’s language access ordinance applies to all city departments, the Mayor’s Office of New Americans has only focused its efforts on the “seven city departments it deems fully subject to the ordinance,” the audit found.

It has not ensured that scores of other city departments “have implemented its requirements to the degree practicable,” as the ordinance mandates.

To make matters worse, “none of the seven prioritized departments are in full compliance,” Ferguson said.

They met the requirement to designate a Language Access Coordinator. But only six of the seven “submitted language access plans and none did so in a timely manner.”

None met the requirement to implement “procedures to solicit community comment on language access efforts.” None have submitted plans to undertake the required “four-factor analysis” or include provisions for identifying emerging LEP populations, the audit states.

Beyond “collecting compliance plans,” the ordinance has no teeth and “does not define” the Office of New Americans’ responsibilities for ensuring language access compliance.

The office responded to the audit by saying it is “considering expanding oversight to more departments.” But no timetable has been established.

“Most departments may therefore have little incentive to comply,” the audit states. “Incomplete implementation likely impedes [limited English proficient] individuals from fully accessing city services, thereby undermining the city’s efforts to support immigrant communities.”

Ferguson noted that Emanuel has “enacted ordinances and launched initiatives” to support Chicago’s immigrant communities and joined other major cities in challenging the Trump administration’s threat to cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities.

“This is consequently an opportune moment for the city to strengthen its language access efforts and demonstrate its commitment to welcoming immigrant communities,” the inspector general wrote.

Last week, City Clerk Anna Valencia announced that the municipal identification card she hopes to issue by the end of the year to help undocumented immigrants come out of the shadows would double as a cashless Ventra card to pay CTA fares and as a library card to access books and services at Chicago Public libraries.

On Wednesday, Valencia responded to Ferguson’s latest audit with a promise to do better on the all-important issue of language access.

“We haven’t read the audit yet, but think improving language access for Chicago’s limited English-proficient residents is an important priority,” said Kate LeFurgy, a spokesperson for the city clerk’s office. “Everyone should know what services are available to them. We’re in the process of drafting our own language access plan that’s in line [with the ordinance]. Anything our office can do to improve access to services for residents, we’re happy to partner with community groups to explore like we did with municipal ID program.”

Valencia’s promise to remedy deficiencies uncovered by Ferguson is not surprising considering the fact that she will be making her first run for elective office in 2019 as Emanuel’s running mate.

Emanuel survived Chicago’s first mayoral runoff against relatively unknown Hispanic challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia by spending $24 million and getting 57.3 percent of the black vote and 39 percent among Hispanics.

If he decides to seek a third term, he will likely need an even larger chunk of Chicago’s growing Hispanic vote to counter what is expected to be a precipitous drop in African-American support, triggered by his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

By positioning himself as a champion of immigrant rights against an unpopular Republican president in this Democratic city, Emanuel is staking his claim to that larger share.

It comes just one week after newly released U.S. Census data showed Hispanics have passed blacks as the second-largest racial or ethnic group in Chicago.