It’s easy, in the abstract, to take the position that “immigrants should learn English.” But that doesn’t happen by itself, and life can be very difficult for a monoglot like Irania Sanchez, discussed in a Tom Robbins column in the latest Village Voice:

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.”

Yes, this will cost money. But surely the already hard-working immigrants who need the assistance will be more productive if they learn decent English, and less likely to end up on welfare rolls.


  1. There are some immigrants who don’t learn English because they are either working (often two jobs) or with their families all the time. In my experience this included the Chinese parents of two of my son’s friends. One mother could barely ask “Is William there?” on the phone. The kids (including siblings) are all exemplary — college graduates, some with advanced degrees, and more fluent in English than in Chinese.

  2. msg: My first reaction was, “Great, somebody’s spamming my comment section with links completely irrelevant to the post.” Then I saw plep (who’s been on my blogroll forever) and thought “At least they have taste.” So I checked out the other two and thought “By george, these are essential visual pleasures.” And I added them to my blogroll. So thanks.

  3. Hmmm. Monosodium glutamate’s Yahoo address sounds odd, though!

  4. S/he’s been round my place too, with a salient although very short, point. Perhaps someone in need of a blog of their own?

  5. Anyway, even with the lack of English classes, they should learn English from the environment. I can’t understand those who live in the country for several years and can hardly say a word.

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