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The Golden Door

News and views on immigration law

Posts Tagged ‘interpreter’

“Crossing a Cultural Gulf”

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

Here’s a story that I found interesting.  It is about the Vietnamese American community in the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: (see cover story in the Fall 2011 NAPABA newsletter).

Although I have not met Mai Phan in person, we have spoken on the telephone and she has always done her best to be helpful when I need insight into a California legal issue.

I visited New Orleans recently, and got a superficial glimpse of the tight-knit Vietnamese American community in New Orleans East (also known as Versailles).  It was interesting to see a place in the United States where Vietnamese was as ubiquitous if not more so than English on storefronts and signs everywhere.  However, in reading “Crossing a Cultural Gulf,” I was also troubled to think that this community, whose roots in the Gulf Coast go back to the Fall of Saigon (1975), may still consist of long-term immigrants who have not learned English and thus are dependent on charity and language access services when they need to access services outside of their ethnic enclave.

Let me profess my ignorance here.  I don’t know the make-up of the Vietnamese American community on the Gulf Coast.  That is, I don’t know what percentage of the population are first wave immigrants, and what percentage are more recent immigrants who have not yet had the time and opportunity to learn English.  But, for the immigrants who have long established their homes here, to fail to learn English along the way is folly.  You become dependent on others, and vulnerable to scam artists who promise to  help you.  I have heard sob stories about Vietnamese “guides” who help people open bank accounts and apply for government benefits only to steal money or identities.

Over and over again, I have heard immigrants tell me (sometimes through interpreters) that they are too busy working to learn English.  I do not doubt that these individuals lead busy lives, working hard trying to make ends meet and raise their families as best they can.  But to fail to learn English is a failure to invest in the future.  Not speaking English means you must either work a labor-intensive job that does not require strong communication skills, or you work in a family business where it doesn’t matter that you cannot communicate in the common language of society around you.  Either way, you are limited in your options.  Too many immigrants, especially older immigrants and those with children who can speak English, decide that it will be the next generation who will move to that next level of prosperity that requires fluency in English.  These immigrants don’t believe that they themselves can progress any further.

Another handicap of not speaking English is that when you need legal help, if you are not eligible for legal aid (free legal services to the indigent) then the chances of your getting free interpretation services along with your legal services are small.  In that case, you need to find a lawyer who already speaks your language; and if you can’t find a lawyer specializing in the matter you need help with then you have to find an interpreter.  Maybe you have a family member who is old enough to have been raised in your native language but young enough to have learned English as a child and thus is fluent in both languages.  But the skills of such interpreters vary wildly, and interpreting legal terms can be tricky.  Chances are, you will not get the full import of what your lawyer is trying to tell you, and may make important decisions based on an imperfect understanding of your rights, obligations, and options.  Paying a professional or certified interpreter can add significantly to the cost of addressing the matter.

I speak Vietnamese, and I value that skill.  In our world today, the more languages one can speak the more doors are open to you.  Immigrants who live in an English-speaking country but fail to learn English are refusing to cross a gate to more opportunities.  Which is a sad irony, because don’t most of us immigrants move to a new country in search of new opportunities?  (And hence the name of this blog.)

In the Philadelphia area, several nonprofit organizations provide English language classes to immigrants, free of charge.  All it costs is your time and effort.  The Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians is one such resource, as is Boat People SOS, Delaware Valley Branch.

Tran Law Associates helps Vietnamese immigrants file for immigration benefits.  If you need assistance with an immigration matter, please contact us at (215) 690-1933, or at