The measure, sponsored by Sen. Teresa Ruiz, represents a long-overdue step for a state that prides itself on being a melting pot, supporters say. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)
More than 150 languages are spoken in homes across New Jersey, one of the most diverse states in the country. Yet, important state documents and forms are usually required to be printed in only one language: English.
A new bill seeks to increase that number to 15 languages, a move its supporters say would encourage more civic engagement and increase access to minority residents and the state’s growing ethnic populations.
“Language access is the key to building trust and building community. People definitely become more informed, more engaged, and they just want to be involved more,” said Raina Mustafa, executive director of the Clifton-based Palestinian American Community Center.
The measure, sponsored by Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), would go further than similar language-access legislation in other states. Hawaii, California, and New York all require state documents to be translated into the states’ 10 most frequently spoken languages.
One in four New Jersey households speak a language other than English at home, Census figures show.
The language-access bill would require non-machine translation of the 15 most spoken languages in the state, including Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin and Catonese), Arabic, Gujrati, Korean, Hindi, Portuguese, and Polish. Every state department and agency would have to comply.
“When people are in need, and especially in crisis, they should be able to connect to the resources available to them. Nothing highlighted this more than these past two years where we saw various obstacles preventing individuals from accessing routine government services,” Ruiz said. “This legislation aims to remove the language barrier faced by so many of our communities around New Jersey by ensuring all of our state entities are prepared to assist our residents regardless of what language they speak.”
Agencies would also be required to name an employee to implement plans and ensure quality translations are being offered. The measure would require agencies to advertise that they provide documents in multiple languages.
Amy Torres of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice applauds the move. Had this program existed, Torres said, the implementation of initiatives like status-neutral driver’s licenses would have gone smoother.
“These programs won’t have the intended impact if people can’t ask questions in the language they speak,” she said.
And during emergencies like storms or school closures, when information needs to be quickly relayed, some communities are left out because of a language barrier, Torres said.
The bill doesn’t specify what documents each agency would be required to translate, saying the New Jersey secretary of state would oversee language-access programs.
Each department and agency would be required to create a plan within 90 days of the bill being signed into law, plans that would note the number of multilingual employees they have, outline a training program for its workforce, and require annual internal monitoring of what services are most requested and how often they are fulfilled.
Some agencies already translate select services, usually limited to Spanish. The bill wouldn’t remove any current requirements that agencies translate some documents into Spanish.
Mustafa underscored how important this bill would be to the Asian American Pacific Islander communities, the fastest growing in New Jersey, with a 44% increase since 2010. The state’s voting forms weren’t translated into Arabic until 2018. Mustafa called this a huge win for Arab-American residents but said it shows how long they were excluded from the process.
“The first question we get when someone calls is, ‘Do you speak Arabic?’ And the second you say yes, you hear the relief in their voices, and like they can open up and speak up,” she said. “Otherwise they struggle to communicate, and dealing with a lot of presumptions and stereotypes already, it’s just an extra barrier. So I think it’s really important to be heading in this direction.”
Alejandra Sorto of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey said the bill represents a long-overdue step for a state that prides itself on being a melting pot. She said it would have immediate and long-term effects for all residents and help a greater number of people in need of vital resources.
“The pandemic has gone to show where the gaps are and what inequities have been exacerbated — health care, vaccines, all these resources the communities needs access to. This goes into how New Jersey can help meet that need and reach people it’s intending to reach,” she said.
The bill does not specify a cost, saying implementation would be funded by American Rescue Plan dollars. It has no companion bill in the Assembly.
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