Last week, Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz introduced #S2459, a bill that would require state government entities to provide translation services in the top 15 most spoken languages by Limited English Proficient New Jerseyans. If passed, the legislation would increase access to state services for New Jersey's increasingly diverse population. 

 "New Jersey is a leader in the diversity and size of our immigrant communities, so it is fitting that we are now leading with the country’s most expansive language access plan. Personally, I remember translating school or utility notices for my mom, but that often meant missing some of my soccer games or less time for homework because I needed to help translate for my parents,” said Laura Bustamante with New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “If passed, this Language Access Plan would allow families like mine to access timely, accurate information and pursue the opportunities offered in our state. Senator Ruiz’s bill sends a clear message: that the beauty and diversity of our communities and identities is something to affirm and celebrate.”

The bill will require state government entities to provide written translation in the top 15 spoken languages by Limited English Proficiency, as well as oral interpretation for languages not covered from that list. The bill also requires state government entities to name a Language Access Coordinator who will design and implement plans at each agency and report on usage and requests to ensure successful, quality translation and interpretation is provided. The bill also includes provisions for highly visible informational posters so New Jerseyans can understand the services available to them as well as downloadable “I Speak” cards that can indicate the type of language service requested.

New Jersey is second only to California in its immigrant share of the total state proportion. That state passed its initial language access plan, the “Bi-Lingual Services Act” back in 1973. As introduced, S2459 is the nation’s most comprehensive plan, both in languages included and public entities covered. Census data shows New Jersey’s current foreign-born population to be over 2 million residents, nearly one of every four residents. Over 155 languages have been identified by the Census Bureau as being spoken in New Jersey. New Jersey is rich in language diversity, but also sees staggering gaps in Limited English Proficiency. Of foreign born New Jerseyans over 5 years old, 42.5% speak English less than “very well.” The numbers also increase depending on immigration status -- it becomes 34% for naturalized citizens and 54.5% for noncitizens.

“When New Jerseyans cannot communicate fully and accurately with state agencies, they are denied fair and equal access to resources, information, and services. As one of the most diverse states in the country, building systems-wide language access and requiring cultural competency and anti-bias training will improve the lives of millions, particularly immigrants and communities of color already facing the brunt of systemic inequities. We applaud Senator Teresa Ruiz for her leadership in introducing S2459 and look forward to working with our lawmakers to build a more equitable and welcoming New Jersey for all,” said Alejandra Sorto, Campaign Strategist at the ACLU of New Jersey.

Community leaders representing New Jersey’s diverse immigrant population, including Asian, Muslim, and Arab communities, emphasized the need to improve language access across the state, in order to close the wide racial disparities in representation and accessing public services. 

“Immigrant communities are rich and growing in diversity. Asian American and Pacific Islanders are one of the fastest-growing groups in the state, yet these communities are rendered invisible in conversations about immigrant issues because a lack of language access prevents us from sitting at the table. We can end these disparities — this Language Access bill is a first and important step,” said S. Nadia Hussain, Co-Founder, Bangladeshi American Women's Development Initiative (BAWDI).

“Racial disparities during the COVID-19 pandemic were particularly acute for immigrants and communities of Color. Having a government that communicates with people immediately and in their own language not only empowers non-native English speakers, it makes all of our communities stronger together,” said Selaedin Maksut, Executive Director of CAIR-NJ.

“New Jersey has made significant strides in language access already, but accountability is key to ensure services are delivered equally and respectfully. The bill introduced today builds on the best practices we already have and strengthens them so that no one is treated differently simply because of the language they speak,” said Abire Sabbagh, Community Outreach and Palestine Education Director, Palestinian American Community Center

Education and family advocates spoke to the need for language inclusion and the lasting impacts on students and families when school systems and other public entities fail to provide information in the primary spoken language.  

“New Jersey is a multilingual community with immigrants hailing from all over the globe. Immigrants are an essential part of New Jersey, contributing to the State's success. However, right now, we are not meeting the basic needs of millions of residents in either our healthcare or education systems, leaving families without the information they need to make good decisions about their children and families, with sometimes devastating consequences,” said Diana Autin, Executive Director, SPAN Parent Advocacy Network.

“Ensuring people access information in their best language is critical for an inclusive and equitable New Jersey - whether we are talking about students in school or communities accessing essential services. As immigrant families cope with the devastating long-term impact of the pandemic, language inclusion is, and will continue to be, necessary to help them recover and ultimately thrive,” said Priscilla Monico Marin, Executive Director, New Jersey Consortium for Immigrant Children.

“We learned from the pandemic that information is best received when it is in one’s own language and delivered in a culturally competent, trusted environment. Being able to access services and programs in one’s own language means that all families will have access to support and have confidence in the state offices that deliver it,” said Kathleen Fernandez Executive Director of NJTESOL/NJBE.

The top 15 languages in New Jersey when sorted by number of limited English proficient speakers is: Spanish, Chinese (combined Mandarin & Cantonese), Korean, Portuguese, Gujarati, Arabic, Polish, Haitian, Russian, Hindi, Tagalog, Italian, Vietnamese, Urdu, and French (including Cajun).