Language Lockout


The working lives of people like Irania Sanchez, born in Nicaragua, represent New York’s dirtiest secret. For six years Sanchez, 34, labored for low pay in a vital industry in Brooklyn: She made coffins. She worked in a small shop, alongside a half-dozen other employees, all of them, like herself, undocumented workers trying to get by. Her wages were minimal—no more than $5 an hour—for long shifts and no overtime. But it wasn’t the pay or the hours that bothered her most. It was the problem of how to cope when her children, both of them born in this country and American citizens, needed costly medicine.

Here Sanchez came up against the twin obstacles that haunt most of the city’s estimated 500,000 undocumented workers: She spoke no English and had no health insurance.

The advice from her employer, Sanchez said, was simple: She should go to the government and get assistance. “He said, ‘They’ll help you,’ ” Sanchez recalled last week. So, when her baby, Gabriela, developed chronic, severe asthma, Sanchez took her to a city emergency room at Woodhull Hospital, in Bushwick, where sympathetic doctors treated Gabriela’s symptoms. But they also told Sanchez she would have to invest in several different medications, as well as an expensive pump that would help Gabriela breathe by cleaning out her lungs every few hours. To get the money to pay for this, hospital staff told her, she should apply for Medicaid.

At the building where Medicaid applications are taken in Brooklyn, Sanchez spent several hours waiting to be seen. When a social worker finally took her case, he rejected her application for what is called Emergency Medicaid, Sanchez said. She spoke no English and the social worker spoke no Spanish, so communication was limited, but Sanchez left feeling insulted and dejected.

She told this story as she stood in a drizzling rain outside the city’s central Medicaid office on West 34th Street with some two dozen other members of Make the Road by Walking, the Brooklyn-based organization that eventually helped Sanchez win an appeals hearing for her Medicaid claim.

The group was there to draw attention to their efforts to win passage of a bill pending in the City Council that would compel the city’s Human Resources Administration to provide interpretation and translation at offices serving large numbers of non-English-speaking people. The bill has already gathered endorsements from 44 of the council’s 51 members and only awaits the support of Council Speaker Gifford Miller and Mayor Bloomberg to become law. Miller’s support is expected. Bloomberg’s position is still unclear, but city officials say they are already providing adequate translation for those in need.

Dealing with the language barrier at government bureaucracies was a key issue raised by immigrant families back in 1997 when Make the Road began organizing in Bushwick, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Andrew Friedman, a Brooklyn-born co-founder of the group, said most initial members had plans or ambitions to learn English, but those dreams were often thwarted or delayed by the difficulty in gaining access to language classes.

According to the New York Immigration Coalition, available English language classes in the city meet just 5 percent of the need. “In the national debate, we spend a lot of time being mad at immigrants for not speaking English, expecting them, as if by magic, to be able to go out and learn a new language while raising a family and holding down a job,” said coalition director Margie McHugh. Assisting those who want to learn, she said, “is the most important thing our government could and should be doing as part of a proactive strategy.”

Make the Road offers English classes for its own members, but the group also decided to conduct a survey of city welfare centers where families reported problems. Visiting nine welfare offices, the group interviewed more than 700 applicants, three-quarters of whom said they couldn’t cope with the bureaucracy because there was no one to interpret for them. Friedman, who is a lawyer, helped file a complaint under federal civil rights laws demanding that the city be ordered to comply with laws requiring interpreters. The Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Medicaid and welfare payments, looked into the allegations. In October 1999, the office issued a letter stating that people with limited English proficiency “were denied interpreter assistance during visits to public assistance offices” and that this lack of adequate translations imposed “significant barriers” on those seeking public assistance.

At the time, however, “Giuliani was mayor, and he just ignored it,” said Friedman. The group continued to agitate for change, and this summer it conducted a new survey that found that 60 percent of Spanish-speaking applicants had not been told by caseworkers of their right to an interpreter.

The new bill, Intro 38A, was introduced by councilmembers John Liu of Flushing and Gale Brewer of Manhattan. “The ESL [English as a second language] classes are all packed to the gills,” said Brewer. “There’s a waiting list to get in. People’s children shouldn’t have to suffer while they’re waiting.” The estimated price tag of the bill is about $5 million, but Friedman predicts that the cost will be returned to taxpayers once federally assisted Medicaid picks up a major portion of the cost of emergency care for children like Sanchez’s.

The language barrier is only the most obvious indicator of America’s great, unresolved debate about its immigration problems, in which the flow of illegal aliens is often depicted as creating a burden on public services. The flip side of the argument is that people like Sanchez and the others on the picket line with her on West 34th Street are doing most of the tough, low-wage jobs in this city and elsewhere around the country. They are the people laying bricks in almost every new building outside of Manhattan, the people cleaning tables in most of the restaurants in midtown, as well as those lovingly tending to the babies of middle-class families where both parents must work.

Several unions recently teamed up to fund an in-depth study of a few square blocks in midtown to find out how much economic activity was being carried out on the backs of undocumented labor. Dubbed the “Black Market Survey,” the results are still being sifted, but according to one participant, it revealed “an entire underground economy,” with otherwise upstanding, legal enterprises conducting business in cash and relying on a network of low-wage undocumented workers for basic tasks.

These are the workers, argue the unions, who labor in constant fear of being exposed for their status and, as a result, are most easily manipulated and intimidated by employers and least likely to be able to complain about illegally low wages and unsafe working conditions.

Make the Road by Walking is already making plans to take part in a huge nationwide effort being organized by the AFL-CIO to highlight the dilemma of undocumented workers. Starting later this month, a giant bus caravan of immigrant workers is set to depart from nine major cities across the U.S., converging on October 4 in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, a borough where the latest census figures report more than 46 percent of the residents are foreign-born. Called the Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides, modeled on the great civil rights trips through a then segregated South in the early 1960s, the demonstration is aimed at creating a groundswell of support for new national laws to create a path to legalization for workers like Sanchez.

The end goal for the unions is to create a level playing field at workplaces and enlist new members, while hopefully providing Sanchez and others the on-the-job benefits their hard work deserves, thus keeping them out of Medicaid offices altogether. “This city is beginning to look like the New York of the early 20th century,” said Ed Ott of the Central Labor Council, which is organizing the October rally. “For labor, to be in this movement to legalize these workers just makes sense.”

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