July 27, 2001


Bienvenidos a Oakland

By Domenico Maceri

"Don't I have any rights" I asked the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) official in Los Angeles after a long and fruitless wait as I was trying to jump all the hoops to become a US citizen. "When you become a citizen you'll have the right to write to your Congressman," the INS official fumed.

Immigrants have few rights. In the last several years California's Propositions 187, which denied benefits to undocumented workers, and 227 which virtually eliminated bilingual education from the Golden State schools, stand as clear signs of anti-immigration feelings.

In a complete reversal to these immigrant-bashing proposals, the Oakland City Council recently approved an ordinance to hire bilingual employees in departments that interact with the public to better serve Spanish and Chinese
speaking residents of the city.

The plan is to adequately provide services to the more than 39% (22% Latino, 17% Asian) residents who are limited English speakers. Oakland becomes thus the first city in the state of California and quite likely the nation to show serious concern about immigrants whose linguistic abilities prevent them from fully participating in the social, economic, and political life of their new country. It will also increase minority representation in the Oakland city government. Figures from 1999, the latest available, reveal that Latinos and Asians represent only 19% of the city's employees (11% Latinos, 8% Asians).

The departments affected by the new ordinance deal with public health, police, fire, and business-related issues such as obtaining permits and licenses. In addition, the ordinance would require hiring translators who would provide Spanish and Chinese versions of essential documents. No city employee will be fired, but as vacancies occur in these departments every effort will be made to hire bilingual employees (Spanish-English, Chinese-English).

Reactions from English-only advocates were predictable. Mauro Mujica, a Chilean immigrant and president of the Washington-based US English, stated that immigrants in the US are "uninvited guests" and should learn English. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle mistakenly stated that Oakland is going bilingual but neither language will be English. A letter published in the Los Angeles Times argued that providing these services in Spanish and Chinese will lead to the Balkanization of the United States and eventually the demise of democracy.

Of course, nothing of the sort will happen. The Oakland ordinance will benefit those individuals who because of weak English skilled cannot get city services to which they are entitled since they work and pay taxes. Business people needing a license will get help because documents will be available in English, Spanish, and Chinese. Safety will increase because new police officers and firefighters will be able to communicate with everyone.

The inclusion of residents with limited English skills will demonstrate to these immigrants that government works for all people. The fact that the language problem is eliminated will go a long way into sending a clear signal that in the US a government by the people and for the people means exactly that.

Many of these immigrants don't see government as friendly. In Mexico getting some basic services often requires a "mordida," a small bribe paid to government officials. And in other countries where many immigrants come from,
the totalitarian regimes crash people's wishes and needs. Government is perceived as the enemy.

In the US, on the other hand, when government officials extend a helping hand to immigrants who have no voice, basic needs are being met.

Basic needs run deep as is clear in places similar to Oakland where the immigrant population is rising. Attempts are being made to copy what the Oakland is doing. In Seattle, Washington, on Fridays, the department of licensing gives driving tests in several languages including Spanish and Russian. Long lines form from the wee hours on Fridays to be able to see a bilingual examiner. Many are turned away because not enough bilingual officials are available. The written test is given in a number of other languages including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese. Arrangements for an interpreter in other languages can be made for provided that the applicant pays for the expense.

Immigrants with limited English speaking skills desperately need other services. In the process of naturalization the lines are so long that only the most persistent remain. And of course, immigrants have few rights until they become citizens and learn English very well.

In Oakland, thanks to the enlightened City Council, Chinese and Spanish speakers will benefit form the inclusion policies of the ordinance. It's interesting that three of the seven City Council members-Danny Wan, Henry Chang, and Ignacio De La Fuente were born in other countries and have had personal experiences with the challenge of not knowing English. The first two are natives of China, and the third was born in Mexico.

Opponents of the newly adopted Oakland measure say that immigrants need to learn English to obtain services. Ironically, the ordinance will help accomplish that. Providing services in Spanish and Chinese will facilitate and increase immigrant participation in American life and expand their interaction with Americans. As a result, English fluency will also improve.

It certainly worked for me. The first times I took my driver's license test in 1973 in New Jersey was in Italian.

Domenico Maceri (dmaceri@aol.com), PhD, UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA.

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