N.J. government agencies would have to use these 15 languages under new plan

New Jersey is known for the vast diversity of its residents, something Teresa Ruiz said makes the state “unique and powerful.”

“Embedded in that is also a myriad of different languages, with some who have better knowledge (of English) and others who do not,” added Ruiz, the state Senate’s majority leader.

More than 150 languages are spoken in the Garden State, with about a third of residents live in households that speak one other than English. For many of them, Ruiz said, it’s daunting to seek help from a government agency, where documents and services are available mostly in only English or Spanish.

But Ruiz and a number of advocates are seeking to change that.

The Essex County Democrat introduced a bill that would require state government agencies and departments to provide documents and translation services in the 15 non-English languages spoken most frequently in New Jersey, regarded as one of the most diverse states in the U.S.

Those languages, according to advocates and U.S. Census information, are, in order of how often they’re spoken: Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), Korean, Portuguese, Gujarati, Arabic, Polish, Haitian, Russian, Hindi, Tagalog, Italian, Vietnamese, Urdu, and French.

“We have to be cognizant these communities have just as equal access to state government, in a way they can understand,” Ruiz told NJ Advance Media. “We want to make sure communities who are looking for information and resources have it at their fingertips.”

Advocates say language access is an issue across the U.S., though some states have improved. California, Hawaii, and New York all require state documents to be translated into their 10 most frequently spoken languages.

If this bill is enacted, New Jersey would have the broadest law.

Language access is yet another issue that has taken on added urgency in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a crisis that left countless New Jerseyans clamoring for assistance on unemployment, testing, vaccinations, housing, and more.

Supporters say this proposal would help non-English speakers get more timely and accurate information, encourage them to become more engaged in their communities, and make government more efficient.

“That helps build trust in public institutions meant to keep us safe,” said Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “If there’s any state that needs a language access plan, it’s New Jersey.”

One hurdle it will probably face: concerns over cost. While there is no fiscal analysis available yet for the measure (S2459), it would likely be expensive.

The proposal calls for using federal coronavirus aid to help cover the price tag.

“I’m not trying to create a burden. There’s an opportunity as a government to do better,” said Ruiz, who in January became the first woman of color to hold the position in state history and the highest-ranking Latina in the New Jersey Legislature’s history.”

Torres also expects critics to say the move would discourage people from learning English and that the money should go toward classes teaching English instead.

“This is not to suggest there shouldn’t be ESL programming,” the advocate said. “But when you think about the technical language on state documents, (that programming is) a much, much higher investment and cost to the state. This move opens immediate access.”

There is no universal translation requirement among New Jersey’s state government departments. Spanish, spoken by about 16% of residents, is the most common language other than English translated at the state’s agencies.

“Someone going to the Department of Labor in the morning and then updating a document at the MVC in the afternoon may get completely different translation experiences,” Torres said.

That’s even though about 32% of residents 5 and older in New Jersey — about 2.9 million people — speak a language other than English, according to the 2020 U.S. Census American Community Survey. By comparison, the number is 21% nationally.

And about 12% of New Jersey residents — about 1.1 million people — speak English “less than very well.”

Even if this bill passes, it would cover only about 10% of the languages spoken in the state.

Still, Priscilla Monica Marin, executive director, the New Jersey Consortium for Immigrant Children, said “this is the type of access necessary to help the people who need the most help.”

“That makes for a better New Jersey,” Marin said. “A more equitable, more inclusive New Jersey.”

Ruiz noted the bill would also have helped her mother, who worked in the corporate world and spoke English only while on the job.

“If she had to call regarding health insurance or banking, she would clearly understand English,” the lawmaker said. “But if someone was explaining to her in detail in Spanish, she would walk away with a better understanding of the actual issue.”

Plus, more translations would be a lifeline to residents during emergencies such as Hurricane Ida, helping make sure information is “ready and in hand right away,” Torres said.

Peg Kinsell, policy director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, which advocates for diverse children and families, said there are often misunderstandings because of language barriers.

For example, she said, when a family recently sought translation help at a school, the staff member brought in was a member of their community and “given access to confidential information they shouldn’t have been privy to.”

“It made the mom very uncomfortable,” Kinsell said.

Alejandro Sorto, a campaign strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said more translation services have been helpful when officials were implementing a law last year allowing undocumented immigrants in New Jersey to get driver’s licenses.

“We had a number of cases where someone was not offered interpretation in their language,” Sorto said. “That forced them to leave without getting a license. … How can you interact with an agency you can’t communicate with?”

Meanwhile, advocates say this bill would be particularly helpful to the Asian American Pacific Islanders population, the fastest-growing community in New Jersey, with a 44% increase since 2010.

Rania Mustafa, executive director of the Palestinian American Community Center in Clifton, said he organization often gets calls from agencies trying to communicate with Arab residents. When someone at the center tells them they can translate Arabic, there’s a “sigh of relief” over the phone, Mustafa said.

“Many times, people don’t seek services from other places because they know they won’t have that language,” she said.

The proposal has not yet been scheduled for a hearing in the Democratic-controlled state Legislature. Both the Senate and Assembly would need to pass it before Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, could decide whether to sign it into law.

Ruiz said she plans to discuss the matter with Murphy and expects it to “take some time to gear up” and be “done properly.”

Under the bill, the services would be installed on a rolling basis, with translations for the 10 most spoken non-English languages offered within one year of the measure becoming law and the other five within two years.

Ruiz said she’s open to changes, such as covering only five languages over the next three years.

“The key here is to get to a place where we are doing something,” the senator said.

Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.

Brent Johnson may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him at @johnsb01.