- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 6, 2002


The influx of Hispanics into the Midwest and South is creating a language barrier in many communities, forcing changes in how governments provide services and the way businesses attract workers and customers.

In Georgia, advocates say, some Hispanic immigrants receive substandard health care because they cannot speak English well and few hospitals have Spanish translators.

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In Tennessee, manufacturing and retail employers say they would hire more Hispanic immigrants but cannot adequately train or relay job-safety requirements to non-English speakers.

"You have to speak English on the job, so nobody has to be around you to tell you what the boss wants" or translate out of an instruction manual, said Jose Adame of Horn Lake, Miss. He came from Mexico nine years ago for work, but said he was not able to find a steady job as a machine operator until he improved his English skills.

The Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers discrimination based on foreign language, though it is an aspect of the law that has not been enforced consistently, said Marcella Urrutia, a policy analyst with the Hispanic advocacy group National Council of La Raza.

An executive order issued in 2000 by the Clinton administration sought to clarify that, ordering federal agencies and organizations receiving federal funds to ensure they have a system that provides services for limited-English-proficiency residents so they "can have meaningful access to them."

Most agencies still are trying to comply with the order, Miss Urrutia said. In Michigan and elsewhere, some government agencies are providing documents in Spanish and crash courses for employees who deal with the public.

"With the growing emergence of Latinos and other immigrants, there has been a growing demand of compliance with the law," she said.

The 2000 census found 11 percent of U.S. residents 5 and older, or about 28 million people, spoke Spanish at home, up from 8 percent in 1990, or about 17 million. Among those Spanish-speakers in 2000, roughly half spoke English less than "very well," about the same percentage as a decade earlier.

But in states that saw the largest increase in Hispanics, the number of people who spoke English less than very well exploded. For instance, in North Carolina, the number of Spanish-speaking residents nearly quadrupled in 2000. The number of Spanish speakers who spoke English less than very well also increased fivefold, while it tripled in Iowa.

Memphis Tennessee's largest city has more than 23,000 Spanish-speaking residents, more than double the number from 1990.

"It's like something that happened overnight here. Memphis has always been a multicultural city, but we haven't necessarily been a multilingual city," said Shelby Mallory of the Work Place, a nonprofit work force development organization for prospective Hispanic workers.

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