OPINION

NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer: Translation services in courthouse are a basic civil right

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 05:  A government employee shovels newly fallen snow from the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court March 5, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Washington DC area is expected to receive 4-8 inches of snow during the day.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 05: A government employee shovels newly fallen snow from the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court March 5, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Washington DC area is expected to receive 4-8 inches of snow during the day. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)  (2015 Getty Images)

New York City is, and always has been, a place of opportunity for immigrants. We are home to over 200 spoken languages, and the people who have come here from around the world helped build this City. We have welcomed them for hundreds of years.   

Diversity is our greatest strength, but it must be protected and preserved. That’s why I was greatly concerned during a recent visit to the Bronx Housing Court to find that most signs were posted only in English. Translation services were lacking, and help centers did not provide services in enough languages.  

Hard-working New Yorkers are often pressured by landlord attorneys to cut deals in hallway negotiations – and to give up their rights – without the benefit of an interpreter. This is absolutely unacceptable, and it must end now.

- Scott M. Stringer

This is exclusion of the worst sort, an insult to thousands of non-English speaking New Yorkers who in many cases have come to Housing Court because they are threatened with eviction or foreclosure. Justice is hard to find in a courthouse that confuses the people it’s supposed to serve, and you shouldn’t lose a battle to save your home just because you have limited English proficiency.

Unfortunately that’s what too many New Yorkers are facing, not just in the Bronx but in throughout the City. Immediately after my tour, our office visited Housing Courts in all five boroughs to examine the state of multilingual services, and we found similar problems.

In Brooklyn the signs leading to interpreters are small and poorly marked. In Queens, signs offering interpretation services are only in English. In Manhattan the first signs you see upon entering the courthouse are in English only.

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In some courts, people wait hours for an interpreter. Sometimes they’re told to come back another day. As a result, hard-working New Yorkers are often pressured by landlord attorneys to cut deals in hallway negotiations – and to give up their rights – without the benefit of an interpreter. This is absolutely unacceptable, and it must end now.

Just as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that non-English speaking residents have a right to bilingual education, we have an obligation to make sure that our courts provide services in more than one language. To achieve these reforms, I’ve sent a letter to Chief Administrative Judge Gail Prudenti, calling for improved language access and offering recommendations for important changes.

But we’re not stopping there. I’m joining forces with a coalition of housing rights and legal advocates, as well as with the City Council and Speaker Mark-Viverito, to push for improvements in all five boroughs. Because there is no time to wait when it comes to basic civil rights.

New York City is home to nearly two million people with limited English proficiency — and our judicial system is failing them. For too long, our courts have been nickel and diming New Yorkers who don’t speak English. I hope you’ll join with me in fighting for language access rights, so we can bring greater justice to our Housing Court.  

Scott M. Stringer is the comptroller of New York City.

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