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Charlotte Area

City Council Members Propose 'Language Access Plan'

Nick de la Canal
City Council Member Larken Egleston, chair of the city's Immigrant Committee, at a bilingual community meeting at Our Lady Of Guadelupe Catholic Church on March 21, 2019.

To get an idea of how far the city of Charlotte lags in accessibility to non-English speakers, look no further than the entrance to the city's government center.

On one side of the main entrance, a sign reads "NOTICE," with a warning that guns and other weapons are not allowed inside the building. Below that, the message is repeated in Spanish, but "NOTICE" is translated as "NOTICIA" which, as Spanish speakers will tell you, actually translates to "news."

The bad translation was brought up at a recent community meeting by local immigrant-advocate Astrid Chirinos.

"Every time I see it, I feel patronized, and I feel upset that my city does not care," Chirinos said. "The city of Charlotte needs to take seriously translation and interpretation."

Other speakers at the same meeting raised concerns that non-English speakers often feel at a loss when trying to interact with city government. City meetings are ordinarily held in English, for example, and city forms are usually printed only in English.

Now, the city is hoping to change that. The city's Immigrant Committee, comprised of four city council members, proposed a citywide "Language Access Plan" on Thursday that's designed to open up the city government to more non-English speakers.

The proposal takes a multi-pronged approach. In the short term, the city would focus on translating forms, documents, and webpages into several different languages and promote the use of in-person and over-the-phone translation services by outside contractors.

In the long term, the city would look at improving multilingual signage and city messaging, and work to identify and retain multilingual city staffers.

The city has identified eight specific languages to focus on in accordance with the plan: Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, French, Russian, Gujarati, Korean, and Hindi. 

The proposal comes after the Immigrant Committee, led by Council member Larken Egleston, held a series of eight community meetings at various locations around the city last month to hear concerns from local immigrants. The meetings were held at local schools, YMCAs, and churches. Some were lightly attended, while others attracted hundreds of participants.

Many speakers touched on language barriers as a key place for the city to improve. Others said the city needed to improve policing within immigrant communities and protect them from crime. Several asked if the city could create municipal IDs that immigrants could use to identify themselves to police or provide grants to immigrant-focused organizations.

At Thursday's committee meeting, Council member Egleston said he hoped to present the "Language Access Plan" to the full city council for a vote on Monday, and later schedule the committee to address other immigrant concerns raised at the community meetings.

Egleston cautioned that not every suggestion would be possible. For instance, a 2015 state law bans North Carolina municipalities from distributing their own IDs.

"Part of this committee's charge is to make sure we are operating within the business of the city," he said Thursday.

Additionally, the city council would need to work out how to fund the new initiatives, he said. The city is currently working on its budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Egleston said he hopes the Immigrant Committee will have at least two more meetings to discuss additional measures.