Proposal for ‘English only’ city council meetings sparks debate in Walnut, Calif.

By Caroline Tan,

WALNUT, Calif. — For Walnut residents who do not speak English, participating in City Council meetings and addressing local officials may soon become more difficult.

Council members voted 5-0 this week to postpone a decision on a proposal that would ask non-English speakers to provide their own interpreters for all Council proceedings, which would be conducted only in English.

But the prospect of English-only public meetings remains a distinct possibility. A vote may happen later this month, when the council is scheduled to meet again on July 25

Though a formal decision has yet to be made, the proposed English-only policy has already raised concerns among some local residents, who fear the move would violate civil rights and unfairly disadvantage a portion of the population.

Nearly two-thirds of Walnut’s residents and three of the five council members are Asian.

The proposal comes at the helm of decades of similar policies targeting the growing immigrant population in nearby cities in the San Gabriel Valley, which has transitioned from a predominantly Caucasian collection of suburbs into a center of Asian culture in Southern California.

The English-only proposal was brought to the council by local resident Wendy Barend Toy, who said she could not understand several commenters who spoke Chinese when addressing the council.

On Wednesday, the council voted to seek federal review from the U.S. Department of Justice before making a decision on the proposal.

Daisy Duan, 27, a graduate student at the University of Southern California who speaks limited English, said in Chinese that the proposal would “definitely” affect her ability to participate in local politics.

“I feel like English is still very difficult,” Duan said. “I know many first-generation immigrants who, when they came to America, could not speak even a single word … It’s not fair.”

Duan added that she thinks the proposal is particularly problematic in California, which has a higher proportion of immigrants than any other state.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Asians represented nearly 64 percent of Walnut’s population. Whites accounted for about 24 percent, and blacks for nearly 3 percent, with the remaining residents from other races. Hispanics or Latinos of any race represented about 19 percent of the population.

Walnut Councilman Tom King said Friday that the city simply can not afford to hire an interpreter for every meeting. He supports the idea of English-only meetings but has reservations about specifics in the proposal.

King said it is uncommon for residents to address the council in a language other than English, so the demand for an interpreter does not justify the costs.

“It would be a financial restriction and waste of money,” King said.

He added that the last time a resident spoke to the council in a language other than English was when a Mandarin-speaking resident came to the podium in April.

Still, King said the council hopes to represent all voices and has considered alternative solutions.

“Nobody wants to disenfranchise anybody,” King said. “It’s just that our meetings are held in English, and we have someone record the meetings in English, and if they speak [a different language], their remarks are not understood.”

King said he has suggested that the Council create a “standby volunteer interpreter list” to provide language support.

But Sissy Trinh, an active member of local advocacy group Southeast Asian Community Alliance, said she has noticed that similar initiatives in other cities ended up as “abysmal” failures. Translation is a mentally exhausting activity and volunteer help can be unreliable, she added.

“You have to assume that people can take that time off and that they’re willing to,” Trinh said. “You don’t know what the quality [of translation] is, and I’ve heard of cases where people are brought in to translate and end up speaking the wrong dialect.”

Trinh added that she considered the proposal a “civil rights violation” that “definitely doesn’t build trust with government officials.”

But King said he was not worried about volunteer recruitment. There are many bilingual students in the region who are eager to give back to their community, he said.

Austin Yuan, 25, a first generation immigrant who is fluent in English, said he could understand the motives behind the proposal.

“As a citizen, you have to understand that perhaps it’s not just the responsibility of the government to just serve you,” Yuan said. “They have to look at everyone.”

Still, Yuan said he sympathized with citizens who do not speak English and feel they are being “cheated out of their tax money.”

The legal debate will likely come down to an “access issue” for those who do not speak English, according to Los Angeles-based civil rights attorney Lisa Maki.

She said it’s a complicated issue, but added that developing a volunteer interpreter datase will likely help the city of Walnut avoid legal problems.

The Council is expected to vote on the matter later this month, pending input from the U.S. Department of Justice on any civil rights or legal issues associated with the proposal.


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