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No English? No Justice - Study

July 8, 2009

New York, NY - If you don't speak English, federal law requries that you receive the assistance of an interpreter, free of charge, when you're in a civil courtroom. However, a study of the 35 states with the highest immigrant populations by the New York University School of Law, says that is not the case in far too many civil courtrooms.

New York is one of the states in the study. Amy Sugimori, of the labor-immigrant collaborative La Fuente, says ignoring the federal mandate could lead to a two-tiered justice system.

"If you're unable to understand what's going on, if you're unable to express yourself, it does raise the question of whether you actually do have access to justice."

Elpidio Molena, of the Bronx, works on language issues with La Fuente. He considers himself fortunate not to have been in a courtroom without an interpreter.

"I can only imagine what could it be like to go through the judicial process without knowing what is being said or being able to express yourself because you don't know the language."

While it's easy to tell immigrant workers to learn the language of their new country, Sugimori points out that access to language courses isn't always available. In the meantime, she says, without court-appointed interpreters, immigrant workers can easily be victimized.

"If you're, say, a worker who's injured on the job, or you're not paid by your boss, do you have to wait until you've become fluent in the language before you can access the court system?"

Some critics of the federal rule believe the government spends too much on providing court interpreters, which in turn may send the message that it's okay for immigrants to not learn English. La Fuente works at lowering language barriers in hospitals and at community board meetings, among other venues.

Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - NY