"It is not easy for people to learn a language overnight; for most of us, it takes awhile. In the meantime, immigrants and the receiving community need to communicate with each other. If their children are in school, it is really important to get the parents involved, and the only way to get parents with limited English skills involved is to communicate in their native language.
"Everybody benefits if parents are helping their children to do better in school. Everybody benefits if newcomers know how to access police services, if working immigrants know how to pay their taxes, if senior citizens know how to vote. Investing in language services makes it possible for new immigrants to participate and contribute to our community. Ultimately, such investments are to society's benefit."
Judy Chu, California Assembly Member, 49th District
Almost 14 million U.S. residents, including nearly half of all immigrant workers, have limited English proficiency (LEP). Learning English, especially for adults, is often a challenge that can take years to accomplish, particularly since many low-income immigrants hold multiple jobs to support their families and have limited time for English classes. Receiving communities should understand that certain segments of the immigrant community--the elderly, people with disabilities, and immigrants who are not literate in their native languages--will have great difficulty learning English and may never achieve full proficiency. However, the vast majority of immigrants are highly motivated to learn English and recognize the importance of good English skills to their success. As these immigrants make the often-difficult transition toward English proficiency, receiving communities have a strong interest in ensuring that lack of English skills does not increase social or economic isolation, barriers, or disparities for their newest members.
The integration of immigrants into local communities can be strengthened when newcomers, including those with limited English proficiency, have access to government services that help them meet basic needs and become self-sufficient. In fact, government agencies that receive federal funds are required to provide language access to their LEP clients. In some instances, government agencies' inability to communicate with LEP immigrants has had dire consequences.
An 80-year-old man suffering from congestive heart failure, colon cancer, high blood pressure, and dementia died within 24 hours of being taken into police custody because the corrections officials could not communicate in his native language and were unaware of his medical conditions. The man's wife tried to explain that her husband was sick and needed medical care, but neither the police nor nursing staff understood her Cantonese.
In addition to the direct impact on immigrants themselves, language barriers to government agencies and services can affect the well-being of the broader community. Untreated illnesses and unsolved crimes can endanger public health and safety. Immigrants' inability to report workplace abuses can depress wages and deteriorate work conditions, lowering the standards for all workers, particularly those in low-wage industries.