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Chicago Is Failing To Help Residents Who Do Not Speak English: Watchdog

By Heather Cherone | September 20, 2017 5:46pm | Updated on September 22, 2017 11:44am
 The city is not following a law designed to help non-English speakers access services, an audit found.
The city is not following a law designed to help non-English speakers access services, an audit found.
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Flickr/Joselito Tagarao; City of Chicago

CITY HALL — Chicago is not truly a "welcoming city" because it does not do enough to help those who do not speak English get access to city services, Inspector General Joseph Ferguson said Tuesday.

Officials in Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Office of New Americans — charged with ensuring that city agencies and departments provide residents with limited English proficiency meaningful access to vital documents and services — are falling short, Ferguson's office found in an audit released Tuesday.

The mayor's office focused only on seven departments, and even those are not in compliance with the Language Access Ordinance, according to the audit.

"At a time of heightened consciousness of and attention to immigration issues, it is especially important that program administration is consonant with and fully inhabits the values embodied in policies and initiatives like the Language Access Ordinance that are critical to the support and successful integration of our immigrant communities," Ferguson said in a statement.

The Language Access Ordinance was adopted in 2015, and Emanuel has made support for immigrants a centerpiece of his second term as mayor at a time when President Donald Trump has vowed to deport undocumented immigrants and end legal protections for those brought here as children.

Emanuel has repeatedly vowed that Chicago will remain a welcoming city to immigrants despite the Trump administration's threats to yank federal funds.

"While the Office of New Americans has prioritized language access in the seven service-delivering departments at the core of the ordinance, ONA will continue to work to ensure that every city department is in full compliance," said Jen Martinez, a spokeswoman for Emanuel.

The city should develop a mechanism to "to enforce compliance with the language access requirements" in every department, according to the audit.

Nearly 400,000 Chicago residents don't speak English fluently, according to the audit.

The city contracts with Language Line Services, Inc. to translate documents and interpret conversations in more than 200 languages. Spanish, Polish, Mandarin, Hindi and Arabic are the most frequently requested languages for translations.

The mayor's office focused its efforts on seven departments it determined deal directly with the public. They are:

• 311

• Business Affairs and Consumer Protection

• Commission on Human Relations

•Department of Public Health

• Chicago Public Library

• Family & Support Services

• Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.

All other departments — including the Chicago Police Department — were required to comply with the language access law only a "voluntary basis," according to the audit.

"[The Office of New Americans] has not established compliance requirements, deadlines, or a clear course of action to expand its language access oversight to departments beyond those seven," according to the audit. "Incomplete implementation of the ordinance likely impedes [non-English speaking] residents from fully accessing important services, thereby undermining the city’s efforts to support immigrant communities."

The "city is months behind in meeting its goal of providing its [non-English speaking] communities with meaningful access to services," according to the audit.

Officials with the mayor's office told the inspector general that they will start meeting quarterly to ensure departments are following the law, and identify several more departments to focus on including the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Chicago Department of Aviation.