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Equal access act gives more say, services to Chinatown residents

6 November 2008 No Comment
Multilingual voter registration forms are available in the Oakland Public Library, Asian branch in the Chinatown.

Multilingual voter registration forms are available in the Oakland Public Library, Asian branch in the Chinatown.

By Guo Shipeng

Ho Ming’s first experience with the Oakland police was far from pleasant.

He still remembers the frustration he felt, trying to explain to an officer in broken English, how someone broke into this car and stole $2,000 worth of equipment he used for his business. That was in 1985, when Ho was an immigrant fresh from Hong Kong.

When a Cantonese-speaking officer  finally arrived on the scene, he did not help matters.

“He just asked me to buy a gun and said ‘Shoot him next time’,” said Ho, 64, who formerly sold garment-making machines. He moved to the U.S. in 1982.

“I paid tax for service from the police. How was I supposed to protect myself under such circumstances?” Ho said in an interview in a Chinatown restaurant on a recent Monday.

For people like Ho, there were more problems than just the difficulty of making phone calls.

A large number of Chinese residents did not know about many of the rights and services they were entitled to in the past, said Michael Sze, the Oakland Police Department’s neighborhood service coordinator for Chinatown.

“The government on the other hand did not do a good job in informing the minority groups. It did not know how frustrated Chinese residents were by their inability to get more oriented,” said Sze, who’s also on the Chinatown’s Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council (NCPC).

Things improved bit by bit. But the significant shift came in 2001, when Oakland introduced the Equal Access to Services Ordinance (EAO), a move that has enabled the city’s Chinese population — more than 30,000 — to better claim their rights and to grow more active in local affairs.

The EAO targets “limited English-speaking groups.” At least 10,000 residents must belong to the group, and each must speak a shared language other than English. The passage of the EAO made Oakland the first U.S. city to pass a law specifically aimed at removing language barriers that limited- English speakers may face when accessing government services.

A sign outside the Equal Access Office in the Oakland City Hall.

A sign outside the Equal Access Office in the Oakland City Hall.

Ho is now retired and his English skills remain limited. But he has been able to call the police and other agencies by simply speaking Cantonese; now all departments are required to hire bilingual employees to staff “public contact positions” and to translate any documents concerning benefits or services to ensure full access to government.

“They don’t need to call me. They can call the departments directly. That’s a big impact,” said Monique Tsang, director of the Equal Access Office, which was in charge of monitoring and facilitating the police departments’ compliance with the EAO.

Ho volunteers in many other community events, including neighborhood crime-prevention meetings held by NCPC.

Both NCPC and the Oakland Fire Department’s CORE (Citizens of Oakland Respond to Emergencies) program started holding Chinese-language events for Chinatown residents three years ago. Ho recently played an injured person in a CORE training session conducted in Cantonese.

The EAO has not only improved benefits and services for the Chinese community, but also more and more people like Ho have become involved in local affairs.

Ho helped collect more than 6,000 signatures from Oakland’s Chinese residents in 2006, in opposition to the city’s plan to sharply raise the parking fee rate in the Chinatown from $1 to $2.75 per hour. Many feared the move could badly hurt businesses.

“We presented a letter written in Chinese to the city with the signatures on it and they accepted it, increasing the parking fee to only $1.25 per hour,” Ho proudly recalled what Sze described as a “textbook example” of collective civic action by the Chinese community.

But with a tight budget and limited resources, there remains plenty of room for improvement in equal access. Some Chinatown residents, especially elders and newcomers, still find dealing with the government a little intimidating because of language barriers.

That gap has spawned a number of Chinese-run companies that help fresh immigrants handle paperwork and whatever businesses with the government. Some are not properTy regulated and often cheat their clients, taking advantage of their ignorance and charging exorbitant fees.

The translation of government documents also has to be improved and standardized, said Tsang, the EAO director.

Tsang is in regular contact with Chinese media in the Bay Area to make sure they use the same translations of city documents, including names of politicians and special policy terms, to avoid confusing the Chinese community.

But all too often it’s the Chinese translation of government documents by state or county authorities that falls short of the standard.

“We still need to do a lot of work. If a limited English speaking person comes to the city as a new immigrant and he can get whatever he needs with his own language,  I’ll be satisfied,” said Tsang. “That’s our ultimate goal.”

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