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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Governor signs language-access bill into law

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer

When Kim Xung Nguyen walked into the Kekuanao'a Building in search of a state identification card a few months ago, she entered a bureaucratic maze.

A recent arrival from Vietnam, Nguyen said she would have been unable to follow the English-only instructions if her husband, who knows some English, had not accompanied her.

"It's very confusing (at the state I.D. office), even for someone who does speak English," said Kim Winegar, who teaches English to immigrants for Catholic Charities Hawai'i.

The so-called language-access bill signed into law by Gov. Linda Lingle yesterday aims to help Nguyen and thousands of others with limited or no English skills by requiring state and county programs to develop plans to provide interpretative services and translated documents to those who need them.

The bill appropriates $440,000 to set up a language-access director's office and a language-access advisory council to study and prioritize the needs of those with limited or no English skills.

Supporters of the bill maintain that in Hawai'i, where 26.6 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, it's important that services be provided for everyone regardless of English fluency level.

Rep. Felipe "Jun" Abinsay, D-29th (Kalihi, Sand Island), who introduced the bill, emigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 1975. Abinsay said the law will have a huge impact on those seeking government services, noting that he and his wife experienced firsthand what it was like to be discriminated against as new arrivals.

Dominic Inocelda, program administrator for the Susannah Wesley Community Center and president of the Interagency Council for Immigrant Services, said lobbying for the bill has been under way for decades, noting that the U.S. Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.

"Now we have something to work on, the rest is to come in the implementation and how it works," Inocelda said.

Lingle, lawmakers and stakeholders in the language-access community acknowledged that setting up the office and the council are just the first steps toward ensuring services are available to those with limited or no English skills.

House Labor Chairman Kirk Caldwell, D-24th (Manoa), said he and his colleagues may be willing to commit more money to the effort.

"It's going to take a lot more down the line because there are so many things that have to happen in terms of putting signs in all government offices, putting them in various languages, determining which languages should be posted, which forms need to be changed translators, interpreters in all parts of government from the courts to the executive branches," Caldwell said. "It's a significant expenditure in the next couple of years. But it's something that we have to do. I think the will is there by the Legislature to see this happen, and that means funding has to follow."

Lingle said while she is reluctant to promise future funding for any program before she sees the state's revenue picture, both she and state Labor Director Nelson Befitel want to make certain services are available to everyone.

"We're committed to making certain that the bill is implemented so that everyone who needs service is not kept out because they can't communicate or understand English," Lingle said. "That may mean private funds. It will definitely mean more federal funds, but I don't want to speak about a future budget without knowing what revenues are. Certainly we are committed to making certain that this is implemented, and Nelson is personally committed to it as well."

Befitel, the son of immigrants from the Philippines, said: "This is just the beginning of this bill. We look forward to working with the lawmakers to make this happen."

Some critics have argued that the bill could reduce the desire to learn English.

In response, Lingle, who noted she would support designating English the nation's official language, said, "Everyone who comes to this country, we want them to have the opportunity to participate in English if they can," she said. "But what if they can't? What if they came here after years in another country and they're not able to speak English when they get here ... but they have children, and those people need medical care and services. What about them?"

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