Ten years ago when she was pregnant with her son, Adriana Rosales paid a stranger $10 a day to accompany her as she applied for food stamps. The translator pretended to be a member of her family and sat in on the interview so Rosales could complete the process to receive the benefits.
More city employees speak Spanish now, Rosales said, but not enough. She still takes someone with her when she goes on appointments for public help. When she applied for Medicaid several months ago, she brought her sister to translate.
"When I go, I always go prepared because I always know that they could say, 'Come back and bring someone with you who speaks English,' " said Rosales, recounting her experience on a recent afternoon at La Clinica del Pueblo, the free community health clinic in Northwest that serves Spanish-speaking clients.
This spring, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) signed into law a language access act that requires city agencies to plan to hire bilingual employees and translate vital documents such as applications and complaint forms into five languages: Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and the Ethiopian language of Amharic. The law is a stronger and broader version of a Spanish language access act passed in 1977.
That law, which mostly covered the translation of documents into Spanish, did not have a staff or funding assigned to carry it out and had little oversight. The new law, which goes into effect in October, will have a $300,000 budget. The city will assign a language access coordinator to work with agencies on complying with the law. A city agency, the Office of Human Rights, is responsible for oversight.
The five languages covered by the act were determined by the number of immigrants speaking those languages in the city. More could be added as the population changes. In California, Oakland and San Francisco have similar statutes.
"By making this a law, it's a very big gesture of outreach to the immigrant communities," said Audrey Singer, visiting fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. In a report released last month, Singer found that the population that has limited proficiency in English rose by nearly 80 percent between 1990 and 2000. More than 38,000 D.C. residents do not speak English well, the study found.
Eight city agencies are in the first group that must be in compliance with the law by October. They include the police department, public schools, fire and emergency services and several health and human services agencies. Many of the agencies already have bilingual services in place. For example, the police department added 40 Spanish-speaking officers to the force by expanding its recruiting efforts to Puerto Rico, and it opened a Latino Liaison Unit in 2002 in Adams Morgan.
All agencies must be in compliance by October 2006.
The new law was sponsored by council member Jim Graham, who represents Ward 1, where 40 percent of the children live in non-English-speaking households, Graham said. When he held an oversight hearing in 2002 on the decades-old Spanish language access law, he found it had not been enforced, he said. "We determined that we had to revise the law and that other languages also needed to be included," he said.
"It's very important that people in our country learn our language," Graham said. "However, we have to take people where they are."
Kenneth Saunders, director of the Office of Human Rights, said his office has received draft plans from each agency listing documents they will translate. Agency directors will also turn in a list of the number of employees who interact with the public, indicating how many of them are bilingual.
For example, in the Department of Human Services, which handles enrollment for critical public benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid, 88 of the 770 public contact positions are held by bilingual workers. Of the 88, 53 speak Spanish, five speak Chinese, three speak Amharic and two speak Vietnamese.
The agency is looking to hire more bilingual social services representatives, case managers, program monitor specialists and rehabilitation counselors, spokeswoman Debra Daniels said.
While the Office of Human Rights will have oversight of the law, the administrative rules governing it are being written by the mayor's Office on Latino Affairs and the Office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs.
Abdul Kamus, an advocate in the Ethiopian community, applauded the law but said it needs improvement to serve African immigrants.
"We are growing, but our social services are not there yet," said Kamus, who stressed that the need for health care is especially great. He recounted the story of an Ethiopian cleaning woman who had high blood pressure but could not afford her pills. She was not aware that she could apply for Medicaid, Kamus said.
Kamus said he hoped that French would be added to the list of languages because many African immigrants speak it.
"This is a boost for our community," said Kamus, who said he has received excited calls from as far away as Africa about the new law.
On U Street in Northwest, immigrants needing mental health services can go to the Multicultural Services Community Support Program, housed in a new building, where workers serve clients in Spanish, Vietnamese and Amharic.
The unit's director, Tedla Giorgis, who is from Ethiopia, gave a tour on a recent morning and spoke to a member of his staff in Amharic.
"When we started 17 years ago, we were just a nice thing to do," he said of the unit. "Eight or nine years ago, it was a good thing to do. Now we have become a must thing."