Interpreters bill close to being passed

State agency forms would be translated

April 05, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Four years after legislators seriously considered a bill to make English the official language of Maryland, the General Assembly is about to designate the state one of the most immigrant-friendly in the nation.

House and Senate committees have agreed on identical legislation that would require all state agencies to provide interpreters and to translate their vital documents into any language spoken by 3 percent of the population served by that agency.

That means Russians in Pikesville would be able to get medical information po-russky, and Salvadorans in Silver Spring would be able to read about workers' compensation en espanol.

The legislation requires professional boards, such as the Board of Nursing, to assess whether their license applications must be completed in English and to report their findings to the General Assembly.

"It shows that our state understands the need to open itself up," said Del. Rushern L. Baker III, a Prince George's Democrat who sponsored the House version of the bill. "We've come a long way."

Both chambers are expected to pass the legislation and send it to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has indicated that he will sign it.

"The governor is supportive of making sure that every one has access to their government," said Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill. "It's very much a part of his fairness and inclusion agenda."

Success is especially sweet for proponents considering this has been the tightest budget season in a decade. To earn support from reluctant lawmakers, they agreed to a four-year phase-in. By July 1, 2003, the agencies considered the most important to immigrants must comply. Those include Juvenile Justice, Human Resources and Health and Mental Hygiene.

The measure is expected to cost $290,200 next year, and a total of $2.6 million after five years.

"We walked into this session hearing from everyone that there was no way we were getting anything that had a price tag," said Kimberley A. Propeack, a lobbyist for the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice.

This legislative session was the third time lawmakers had considered the bill. "The movement came from restating again and again and again that these folks are Americans. They work, they pay taxes, they have the same rights to use services," Propeack said. "I think it's testament to the changing times."

The bill's likely passage is also a sign that Latinos and other immigrants are gaining power in Annapolis. Spanish speakers joined members of the state's Asian-Pacific community to lobby lawmakers and testify at hearings.

Their persistence is due in part to their growing frustration about language barriers across the state, especially as their numbers grow.

About 20,000 immigrants enter Maryland every year. The 2000 Census reported that 13 percent of Marylanders older than age 5 speak a language other than English.

And a recent study by the University of Maryland showed the vast majority of state agencies have contact with people with limited English ability -- most commonly those who speak Spanish, Russian and Korean.

With a dearth of available interpreters, state workers said they tried to help by speaking slowly or by asking the person to come back with a child or friend who speaks English.

If approved, the legislation will mark Maryland as perhaps the most welcoming in the nation. California, for example, also requires interpreters and translations, but not for all its state agencies.

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