By Amana Ranjan
All of us dream. The ambitious dream big. The affected dream with vengeance. Some of us simply dream for whatever it is worth. but what one truly desires is change. A change from, more often than not, poverty, political instability, religious suffocation, economic backwardness, illiteracy, persecution, war and disaster. The world is plagued with atrocities forcing people to leave their comfort and seek change. Imagine uprooting your life for an unforeseeable and undetermined future. Imagine heading to a country starkly different in culture, language and values. Imagine being a stranger in your new country. Imagine being deaf and dumb in your new home.
America is a prime destination for those seeking a better life. It promises a life full of freedom and innumerable opportunities. Health care, status, social issues, politics and the strength of the US dollar are redeeming features which go far and beyond in convincing immigrants of its attractiveness. Lastly, the well settled and thriving population of second and third generation immigrants only adds to the allure.
For most people, immigrating from one country to the other is nothing short of a herculean task however the upheaval and changes brought into lifestyle of the new immigrant is nothing in comparison. ( http://www.thecivilsociety.info/reasons-for-immigration.php) A major setback for immigrants is a the lack of a social support system that would guide them through the new experiences and difficulties in a new country. (http://www.vircs.bc.ca/settlement/common_issues.php ) Thus, the real challenge faced by new immigrants is getting acclimatized in the new country.
The Language Barrier and its Consequences
The first hurdle face by immigrants is the language barrier. It is the simplest and the most basic form of communication. A majority of immigrants moving to the US do not come from English speaking countries. The lack of proficiency in English prevents immigrants from making vital connections in their communities and performing the simplest errands. Immigrants often come with special skills which are not recognized in the US, this coupled with their lack of command of the English language makes it difficult for them to find jobs, housing and accommodation, social security services, health services, information about immigration, sponsorship, legal advice, childcare, torture and trauma counselling etc..
The first step immigrants need to take in a new country is to find a job to support themselves. This is where they encounter their first hurdle due to their inability to speak English. Individuals with difficulties in communicating in English face extremely limited job options and therefore are unable to secure the entry-level jobs in service and manufacturing. this results in a majority of immigrants being confined to ethnic owned and frequented business. Another alternative for immigrants is to earn a living is by working as a low skilled labourer and have now become an integral part of the low skilled labour force in America. Low skilled immigrants in America are usually able bodied men looking to improve their lives. Jobs that would have secured them a steady income in their home countries are usually considered menial in America or at times their professional degrees aren’t recognized leaving them in a no choice basis. Furthermore, low-skilled immigrants also have a history of coming from unstable homes or growing up in poverty and therefore they simply do not have what it takes to succeed in a technologically sophisticated society. As a result, immigrants are often exploited by their employers due to their inability to speak English by justifying long working hours, failure to pay overtime compensation, and minimum wages.
Low wage work with no benefits often causes various other socio-economic problems in the lives of the immigrants. Financial constraints along with poor education leads to a disparity between the parents and children of immigrant families. While the parents strive hard to gain financial stability the children often turn to their peers for help rather than their family. This is usually because poorly-educated parent are less able help their children with homework and feel handicapped at their inability to negotiate with educational and other institutions to foster their children’s success. As a result, the children are whose parents have more education tend to fare better than those whose parents have less education creating a setback for immigrant children. (http://www.princeton.edu/futureofchildren/publications/journals/article/index.xml?journalid=39&articleid=123§ionid=808) Children of immigrants often grasp English more quickly than their parents and outdo their level of education making parents extremely dependent on their children. Its leads to distance and diminished communication between parents and children. (Silke & Tip, 1994; C. Suárez-Orozco & M. Suárez-Orozco, 2001) This results in a role reversal, interrupting the balance of power in the family. Children come to have power over their non-English speaking parents and grandparents as therefore have the power to control the communication from school the surrounding English-speaking communities. Therefore, the only the communication the child want their parents to know and hear reaches them. As the family gets acclimated to American culture, the older generation may find their traditions and authority being questioned by their children and grandchildren. They find themselves totally dependent on their children with few meaningful activities to engage in. Furthermore, as the children begin to assimilate in their new society, many lose fluency in their ethnic language while the adults fail to learn English. There is no longer effective communication between children, parents and grandparents. As a results, they start to feel useless, lonely and isolated as they desperately try to cling on to their cultural roots only to see their children drift further away from it.
Language is one of the strongest barriers to accessing health services. There is an acute shortage of trained bilingual translators in the mental health and substance abuse departments. As a result, it becomes difficult for immigrants to seek help as well and doctors to explain and provide treatments. This shows extremely poorly on any country as despite the infrastructure, support and care cannot be provided to those in need due to a language barrier. This shortage makes it almost impossible for limited-English-proficient immigrants to obtain appropriate services. (Gurvitch, A. Immigrants’ Access to Mental Health Services in New York State: Barriers and Recommendations. [Cited 2006 01/08/06]; Available at http://www.thenyic.org/templates/documentFinder.asp?did=331 as read in http://cac.hhd.org/pdf/FAQ3_RWJ.pdf) Statistics show that only 48% of Spanish-speaking immigrants, who required interpreter services during their health care visits, were provided with one. Furthermore, only 70% of the people who received these services fully understood what the doctor was trying to convey. (Doty, M. (2003). Hispanic patients’ double burden: lack of health insurance and limited English. Commonwealth Fund Pub. The Commonwealth Fund. 592 as read in http://cac.hhd.org/pdf/FAQ3_RWJ.pdf) Language barriers, thus, impede access to health at all levels, from primary care to preventive care, as well as specialty services such as substance abuse services.
Over the last decade there has been a spurt in the number of immigrants living within America. Unlike in the past where they restricted themselves to settling in the suburbs, small towns and rural areas they have now settled in metropolitans bringing new cultures and languages to places previously unaccustomed to such cultural diversity.
A corresponding result of this cultural diversity should be reflected in the working of the law enforcement agencies. The agencies will now how to deal with unfamiliar languages and problems as they work to ensure public safety. In order to ensure this, it is essential that various measures should be taken to ensure that the language barrier does not disrupt the working of these agencies. As it would effectively deny them of the rights they are entitles to. To ensure effective communication among people the state should provide language services enabling immigrants access to essential government resources which they are entitled to. This can either be in the form of opportunities to learn English at local community centres or special evening classes for those who are employed as well as providing qualified translators in essential institutions like government agencies and financial institutions. Focus on adult education is the need of the hour as children of immigrant are provided with this opportunity in school. It is essential for adults to learn English for a variety of reasons but primarily self dependence and autonomy. It would provide them the required confidence and improve their quality of social and economical life. Furthermore, stringent laws must be made requiring hospitals and other care giving institutions to provide translations but collaboration with various organisations or independently especially in areas where the immigration population is dense. Lastly, immigrants must also on their part learn basic or at the least some broken English before moving to America so that they aren’t completely handicapped as language acquisition is the key to social integration.
Opinions expressed in this essay do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Shah Peerally and his affiliates.