Politics & Government

Charlotte provides most of its services only in English. The city wants to change that.

CMPD works to reach out to Latino community amid ICE actions

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officers Steve Branan and Marty Baucom, of CMPD's Independence Division, use time at Los Reyes 2, a Latino grocery store in east Charlotte, as an informal site to answer law enforcement questions.
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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officers Steve Branan and Marty Baucom, of CMPD's Independence Division, use time at Los Reyes 2, a Latino grocery store in east Charlotte, as an informal site to answer law enforcement questions.

For Astrid Chirinos, the sign by the entrance to Charlotte’s government center offers much more than a warning about guns.

In English, it reads “NOTICE,” alerting visitors that weapons are banned inside the building. But rather than offering the correct translation in Spanish — aviso — the sign displays the word for news: noticia.

“Every time I see it, I feel patronized,” Chirinos said. “I feel upset that my city does not care. Even if I do not speak English well enough, it does not matter.”

Chirinos, a native of Venezuela, raised that point at a community meeting last month on the city’s east side. It was one of eight listening sessions held across Charlotte by city council’s ad hoc Immigrant Community Committee.

In response to concerns raised at those sessions, the committee moved last week to present its first proposal: the implementation of a “language access plan.” Officials say it would serve as a template for city agencies on how to communicate with residents in eight languages other than English, from Spanish to Vietnamese and Hindi.

It’s a badly needed step, some say, in a city that is still catching up to serve a rapidly growing immigrant population — one that does not often use the same language as its local government. According to census data, 1 in 10 of the city’s residents say they speak English “less than very well.”

The language access plan would lay out a plan for Charlotte’s city agencies to provide translation to residents, over the phone or in person; conduct community meetings in other languages; and translate documents, especially those that introduce residents to city services.

“It’s something that we’ve known is a need in our community,” said Emily Yaffe, international relations specialist at Housing & Neighborhood Services. “We don’t translate our documents as often. Our staff aren’t very well trained on how to use language interpretation services.”

Yaffe said that city agencies that are closely tied to federal funding, such as police and transit, already have language access plans in place.

Both Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and the Charlotte Area Transit System train staff on how to use interpretation services, conduct studies on English proficiency and foreign language needs across Charlotte and release annual reports on the issue.

But that’s far from the case for other parts of city government, which in some cases lack any kind of reliable information in languages besides English. Even the city’s official website relies on Google Translate, which has been criticized for being imprecise, if not entirely incorrect.

At-large council member Dimple Ajmera said that language gap is personal.

“Having gone through this process of becoming a U.S. citizen, my journey started with a language barrier,” she said.

Yaffe pointed to Boston, which has a four-person office that heads up services for the approximately 116,000 residents of that city who speak English less than “very well.”

The equivalent statistic in Charlotte is about 82,000 people. But dealing with language access is only a portion of Yaffe’s job in the city’s office of community engagement.

Council member Larken Egleston, the committee’s chair, said the language access plan ties into the committee’s broader efforts to expand outreach and provide more information to the city’s immigrants.

Committee members say they hope to identify other concrete, locally focused policy solutions later this month — both to legislate within the bounds of city government and to shed a sense of deja vu.

In 2015, a task force assembled by city council drafted a list of 27 recommended strategies meant to make Charlotte more welcoming for immigrants. Among those was the appointment of Federico Rios as the city’s first immigrant and integration manager, a role that tasks him, alongside Yaffe, with implementing some other items on that list.

But because some of the recommendations — such as the introduction of a universal ID — could not legally be accomplished by the city, some have expressed a sense of apprehension about the formation of another committee.

“We all collectively want to break the notion that Charlotte government does studies that take a long time, they put a 500-page report out, and then they sit on a shelf,” Egleston said. “We’ll all be glad to shed that reputation.”

Back at the preschool, as she spoke about the sign outside the government center, Chirinos echoed that feeling.

“The danger of communication is the illusion that it has taken place,” Chirinos said. “If there is not an integrated model from the city to be able to communicate in language and in culture, we’re going to continue to have this conversation over and over and over.”


An earlier version of this story misspelled Emily Yaffe's last name and incorrectly described the 2016 task force. It was put together by city council, not Jennifer Roberts, and more than a few of its recommendations were put into place. The task force drafted its recommendations in 2015, not 2016. It also incorrectly described the Office of International Relations. It existed prior to the task force's recommendations, but Federico Rios was appointed after.

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Teo Armus writes about race, immigration and social issues for The Charlotte Observer. He previously worked for The Washington Post, NBC News Digital, and The Texas Tribune, including a stint reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border. He is a graduate of Columbia University, a native Spanish speaker and the son of South American immigrants.
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