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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, April 8, 2006

Deal on language access reached

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer

State labor officials and immigrant advocates have reached agreement on a bill that would ensure those with limited or no English skills gain access to state and city services.

House Bill 2778, dubbed the language access bill, has advanced out of three Senate committees and is poised to win approval from the full Senate next week.

The bill requires state agencies and non-government agencies receiving state money to "take reasonable steps to ensure meaningful access" for individuals with limited English proficiency to services, programs and activities.

Exactly which agencies must provide oral and written language services is not specified in the bill's current language. Considerations, however, include the percentage of limited English proficient people using a service, the nature and significance of the service and the resources available. Agencies would work with a proposed language access office to determine whether steps should be taken to assist individuals with limited English skills.

Advocates maintain that the bill is sorely needed in Hawai'i where about 17 percent of the population is born outside of the United States, and 27 percent of the state's residents speak a language other than English at home.

Nelson Befitel, director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, had raised objections to a different bill addressing the matter that proposed allowing lawsuits against state agencies for failing to provide proper language access. But Befitel supports HB 2778, worked out with Na Loio, the Immigrant Rights and Public Interest Legal Center, according to James Hardway, a spokesman for the labor department.

"From our point of view, the main sticking point was the issue of allowing persons to come in and sue state agencies (and those receiving state funding) for not providing either an interpreter or vital documents translated," Hardway said.

Despite the department's support, however, the agency continues to have concerns about the bill's cost implications.

"The issue now is whether the Legislature is willing to commit large amounts of money to ensure that language access services are provided," Hardway said.

Besides establishing a new language access office, additional money would be needed for each government agency required to provide services that may result from a new law.

Financing concerns were echoed earlier this week by Sen. Fred Hemmings, R-25th (Kailua, Waimanalo, Hawai'i Kai), who, along with Sen. Sam Slom, R-8th (Kahala, Hawai'i Kai), voted against the bill in the Ways and Means Committee.

"We don't know what exactly (the bill) is going to do. We don't know what languages specifically are going to be involved, and we don't know how much it's going to cost," Hemmings said.

Hemmings also questioned the approach to the issue.

"What I suggest is to do everything necessary to teach immigrants coming into America and who become legal citizens to speak English so that we're all speaking one language and work together constructively," Hemmings said.

He said attempting to accommodate "every single language seems like an impossible task where do you draw the line?"

Jennifer Rose, program development director for the Domestic Violence Clearinghouse and Legal Hotline, countered, "Many immigrants want to acculturate, and helping them to get the benefits and services they're entitled to helps them to acculturate."

She added, "The less that a battered immigrant woman, for instance, is disenfranchised or is isolated, the more she is able to acculturate into the mainstream."

Pat McManaman, Na Loio's chief executive officer, said language accessible services are guaranteed under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"At its core, this is about ensuring that everybody in America has access to services at an equal level. It's a core civil right," she said.

"This bill would truly open the doors to limited English proficient people and enable them to participate."

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com.