San Francisco boasts the nation’s “strongest” language-access laws, but members of the public can struggle to get government-provided interpreters. Sometimes local groups hire own interpreters, as the Chinatown Community Development Center did for this recent committee meeting. Photo: Zhe Wu/San Francisco Public Press Credit: Zhe Wu/San Francisco Public Press

This story was reported by San Francisco Public Press, a nonprofit news organization that publishes independent public-interest journalism about under-covered topics.

More than 30 Chinese American residents lined the walls at a recent city Planning Commission meeting to oppose the opening of a cannabis dispensary that they said could bring drugs, crime and violence to their neighborhood, the Bayview, in the southeast part of the city. 

In the lead-up to approving the dispensary, commissioners tried to ease the attendees’ concerns. They said the project fit into a local push to decriminalize the cannabis industry, and promised that city staff would work with the dispensary operator to make sure it followed all regulations.

But it’s unlikely that their message reached many of the people in the room, because they said it in English — most, maybe all, of the objecting residents were monolingual Chinese speakers. An interpreter, provided by the city, had interpreted only public comments from Chinese into English for the commission’s benefit.  

“While I appreciate that the commissioners asked many questions, most people there couldn’t understand what they were saying, what questions they were asking or why they approved the motion,” said Josephine Zhao, a community leader and president of the Chinese American Democratic Club, who had booked the interpreter. She had expected to receive English-to-Chinese interpretation too, clueless that she had failed to clear bureaucratic hurdles that she did not know existed.

San Francisco has “the strongest local language law in the nation” for providing translation services and interpretation during public meetings in order to make government widely accessible, according to the city Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs, which oversees those policies. Officials are proposing to strengthen the policies.

But those services often fall short and the forthcoming revisions to the policies are unlikely to change that. The people who need the services most, including immigrants, are generally unaware that they’re available or how to access them, some community groups say. Members of the public must request interpretation in advance but even then, the city might fail to provide it because of resource shortages. The result is a persistent communication gap between the people who make laws and many whom they affect.

“I’ve been at hearings numerous times when people who got up there and spoke in their native tongue, and there weren’t translators available,” said Roberto Hernandez, one of the founders of the Latino Task Force, which serves communities with prevalent Spanish and Maya speakers. 

Difficult request process

Proposed legislation by District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton, who represents the southeast neighborhoods, would make Vietnamese one of the languages that the city must use in signage and online content; the other languages are English, Spanish, Filipino and Chinese. His proposal would also make it easier for the public to file complaints when, for example, they did not receive the interpretation services they requested. 

Despite having a robust set of language-access policies, “not every single department is following it,” said Natalie Gee, Walton’s legislative aide. The supervisor’s proposal is largely intended to increase department accountability, she said.

But that proposal would not affect the system for requesting interpretation services, which can be a barrier for many. For example, requests must be made at least 48 hours before a public meeting.

“The time to request is challenging,” said Vanessa Bohm, director of family wellness and health promotion programs at the Central American Resource Center, a nonprofit that helps the Bay Area Latino community. The center is one of seven organizations that form the Language Access Network of San Francisco, which educates people about language policies and gives city departments feedback on their execution. 

To request interpretation, someone must know whom to call: Requests for meetings of the Board of Supervisors or its many committees should go to the clerk of the board, and booking for other public bodies requires finding and calling their dedicated contacts, often on department websites. Callers must provide a meeting’s name and date as well as the specific agenda item for which they’ll want interpretation, information that can also be found online if someone knows where to look. Bohm said making a request is complicated — even for someone who can read and speak fluent English, like her — and people with limited English proficiency probably have a harder time.

Hefty price of interpretation

When asked about the Planning Commission’s meeting on the proposed cannabis dispensary, Dan Sider, the Planning Department’s chief of staff, said Zhao had requested Chinese-to-English interpretation for only the public comment period. City personnel do not make assumptions about other services that requesters might need, Sider said. 

Zhao told the Public Press that she had expected to receive two-way interpretation, unaware that her request needed to spell that out.

Interpreting a meeting’s deliberations into the requester’s language generally costs more than interpreting public comments for lawmakers. The city pays an interpreter between $30 and $50 per 15 minutes of work. At the meeting, the interpreter speaks quietly into a device that transmits to headsets for the people who need the service. If the meeting exceeds one hour — and many do — two interpreters are needed because continuously speaking without a break can be exhausting.

By comparison, public comment periods generally last several minutes.

It would be ideal to provide meeting-long, two-way interpretation as the norm, Sider said. But “we have to operate with some very real resource constraints,” he said.

SF ‘not prioritizing immigrant community members’

Jose Ng would like to see it become the norm. Ng is an immigrant rights program manager at local nonprofit Chinese for Affirmative Action, and he manages the Language Access Network, of which his organization is a member.

“When you want community members to be able to fully participate in those meetings,” full, bi-directional interpretation is best, Ng said. But “we often hear that they don’t have enough staff” to provide that service, he added. 

One scenario that can arise is that a department cannot secure both of the interpreters who would be needed for longer meetings, said Jorge Rivas, the executive director of the Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs.

In follow-up correspondence, the Public Press asked Walton’s office why his legislation did not attempt to fix these issues. Staff did not reply in time for publication.

City departments have a general culture of “not prioritizing immigrant community members’ language access needs enough,” Ng said.