Emanuel’s plan to provide city services in many foreign languages advances

SHARE Emanuel’s plan to provide city services in many foreign languages advances

Ald. Ameya Pawar says a municipal ID program will help the homeless access city services without being treated like criminals. | Sun-Times File Photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to provide city services in an array of foreign languages — and create a municipal identification program — advanced Tuesday amid concern that the “Language Access Ordinance” is not strong enough.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) pointed to lessons learned in San Francisco, where officials now want to strengthen a trailblazing, 2001 ordinance with increased  training, a beefed-up complaint process, more resources for language services and an end to a “two-tier system” that has excused public-safety departments.

Instead of learning from San Francisco’s mistakes, Chicago may be doomed to repeat them, Waguespack said.

The ordinance advanced by the City Council’s Committee on Human Relations calls for city departments to provide services in “any non-English language spoken by a limited or non-English proficient population that constitutes 10,000 individuals or five percent” of the city’s 2.7 million population, “whichever is less.”

But the mayor’s plan also creates a two-tiered system of services, appearing to let some departments off the hook by stating: “Those departments that provide services to the public that are not programmatic in nature, such as emergency services, shall implement this chapter [only] to the degree practicable.”

Waguespack said the trigger point for access to city services in a foreign language should be not 5 percent of the overall city population, but 5 percent of people who access that particular service. Waguespack also wants to scrap the two-tier system.

“Police and fire should not be pushed to a second tier. We’re diminishing our ability to deal with people in crisis situations, which is what we seem to be revolving around more so lately than ever,” Waguespack said.

“When you’re in a crisis situation and you’re a person who speaks a language that someone on the other line doesn’t, that exacerbates the situation. That could be valuable minutes lost . . . I know that we do provide some of the translation services right now . . . in a crisis situation — especially with a larger group of people, you’re putting them in more danger than they need to be.”

Ami Gandhi, executive director of the South Asian American Policy & Research Institute, seemed to agree.

“Domestic violence victims, who are limited English proficient, often need help from emergency services as well as other social service departments,” Gandhi said.

“They face inconsistent results. You’ll hear some really amazing inspirational stories of city personnel really helping someone in the worst situation imaginable. And there are other situations where city personnel are not understanding the best practices when it comes to someone who has these double- or triple-layers of vulnerability.”

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), co-sponsor of the Language Access Ordinance, said police and fire are not off the hook.

But he said, “We can pass a paper policy today. That doesn’t mean the boots on the ground are going to embrace that. Their unions need to be at the table as we are developing the language access policy and plan with the advocates.”

The ordinance advanced Tuesday also would establish a “working group” charged with developing an “implementation plan for a municipal ID program.”

The ID would be used to connect Chicagoans with city services and benefits, whether or not they are homeless and regardless of their immigration status and gender identity.

“I’m sick and tired of the criminalization of homeless people. If you want to get people into homes, supportive housing, taxes, services, an ID is the first step,” Pawar said.

“If you go get a state ID or driver’s license, you have to declare gender. Our plan with this municipal ID is that you don’t have to declare. It also says to everyone in the city — whether you’re homeless, transgender or undocumented — you belong here and we’re here to serve you.”

According to the mayor’s office, more than 400,000 Chicagoans have difficulty speaking, reading, writing or understanding the English language. If that’s true, 16.1 percent of the city’s population may face “significant language barriers” when they try to access city services or programs.

Emanuel’s plan would require every city department to designate a language access coordinator to implement policy and submit an annual compliance report.

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