Non-English speaking residents of Merced County struggle to voice their opinions to the public officials they help elect, critics said Tuesday.
Lupe Delgado, a healthcare outreach worker with the Parent Institute for Quality Education, said many local voices have been stifled by Merced County’s failure to provide interpreters at Board of Supervisor meetings, similar to what’s available already at Merced City Council meetings and several other publicly-elected governing boards.
“If they don’t feel welcome, that’s a barrier,” Delgado said. “It defeats the purpose of them being here. They’re fulfilling their obligation as a citizen to join a civic group. Language needs not to be a barrier.”
Delgado stepped in during Tuesday’s board meeting and translated for multiple Spanish-speaking residents who spoke during public comment on Health4All, an initiative to expand health coverage to the thousands of local residents who lack insurance because of their immigration status.
When county staff saw Health4All advocates waiting before the meeting began, they scrambled to find an employee who could interpret for Spanish speakers, said Daron McDaniel, the chairman of the board.
However, that employee, whose regular job duties do not include certified interpreter services, struggled to keep up. That’s when Delgado stepped in to help, thanking the employee and acknowledging the difficulty in accurate interpreting.
“Just because you speak Spanish doesn’t mean you are a good interpreter,” Isai Palma, another advocate with Building Healthy Communities, told the board.
Critics said the incident exposed a problem the county board has reaching the county’s non-English speaking population.
In Merced County, 52 percent of the population speak a language other than English at home, U.S. Census numbers show. The 2016 Merced County Community Health Assessment noted the population’s diversity, with 58 percent of residents being Hispanic or Latino, 8 percent being Asian and 4 percent Black.
During a meeting last month, County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza was cut off when he tried to translate for a member of the public speaking during the public comment portion of a meeting.
“Rodrigo knows both languages very well, but he doesn’t have the certification to translate,” McDaniel said. “We’ve got to have a certified interpreter so there’s consistency in the interpretation.”
McDaniel said the board didn’t know it would need interpreter services on Tuesday and rushed to find one at the last minute.
Espinoza on Tuesday said he wants the county to do more to include non-English speaking residents. He noted that more than 70 percent of the people in the area he represents, which runs from Livingston to Le Grand and includes the area of South Merced, speak a language at home other than English.
The county is looking into having certified interpreters from other departments on hand during future board meetings, McDaniel said.
The county asks people who may need an interpreter to make a request 48 hours prior to the meeting. On Tuesday, county staff received no requests, said Mike North, a county spokesman.
For board of supervisors meetings, requests would need to be made the Friday before the Tuesday meeting. Board agendas are typically posted the Wednesday before the meeting at the latest, giving people two days to make the request.
The city of Merced has Spanish and Hmong translators available for all city council and town hall meetings, said Mike Conway, a spokesman for the city. The city also provides headsets for Spanish-speaking audience members to listen to the meeting.
At Livingston City Council meetings, several councilmen speak Spanish and translate from the dais if necessary on a regular basis.
More than a dozen community members have attended board of supervisor meetings for months asking the county to explore its options in offering undocumented immigrants health coverage. In April, the board voted unanimously to hold a study session that would explore ideas on how to expand health insurance to undocumented residents.
The non-profit group Building Healthy Communities estimates Merced County is home to about 25,000 undocumented immigrants, more than half of whom are “locked out” of health coverage.
Overall, about 8 percent of Merced County residents lack insurance, according to 2016 figures from Enroll America.
During Tuesday’s meeting, advocates urged board members to continue the conversation and keep the lines of communication open.
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477