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Accessibility spotlight: Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Advancement

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In 2016, Mayor Martin J. Walsh signed a City ordinance called “Establishing Language and Communications Access for City Services.” We are excited to share with you the progress that has been made in this monthly article series. We hope you will support us in making Boston a more accessible place to live, work, and play.

The City of Boston’s Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Advancement (MOIA) was one of the first of its kind in the US. Founded in 1998, MOIA gained recognition as a model for other cities. It wasn't until 2008 that offices like MOIA began to grow in number around the country. Today, remains central to Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s vision for Boston. MOIA works to strengtheMOIA n the ability of immigrants in Boston to take part in the city. This includes the economic, civic, social, and cultural life of the city. They also promote the recognition and public understanding of immigrant contributions to Boston.

The lens of language and communication access is vital for MOIA to achieve its mission. MOIA serves a unique population. It includes people who live in the diverse Boston boundaries. But it also includes people who come to Boston to work, go to school, shop, and take part in cultural events. Language can be a significant barrier for these constituents. 17.4% of city residents identify as having a language access need in English. This doesn’t even account for the 22.7 million people predicted to visit Boston in 2019.

The City must represent and cater to its diverse constituents. An Le is MOIA’s Policy and Communications Advisor. He believes language and communications access must be “an operational function of City government, not a luxury feature.” Le points out that this function is also important for English-speaking immigrants. There are many immigrants who already communicate well in English. But, they may still need clarification for certain information. For example, words such as “justice” can take on many meanings in different situations. Unfamiliar and complex subjects, like immigration, are at risk of mistranslation. Such topics need context to be clearly communicated. MOIA can help clarify these concepts and jargon to Boston constituents.

MOIA serves as a main information center for immigrants. They offer multilingual Immigrant Information Centers in libraries and community centers. They host monthly free immigration consultations with volunteer attorneys. Constituents can request free interpretation services for the clinics a week in advance. They also promote public understanding of immigrant contributions to Boston. MOIA’s “To Immigrants With Love” program is city-wide. It shares stories of immigrants and encourages civic involvement.

The first step towards language access in Boston took place through MOIA. Before the 2016 law, MOIA managed two very well known resources. These are the LCA Volunteer Pool and the Professional Vendor Directory. Departments often reached out to MOIA when language services were in need. In 2016, the Mayor wanted to think about language and disability access in a more strategic way. After the 2016 ordinance became law, the LCA team began to plan and create resources. LCA extends tools, trainings and information across all departments. Now, departments no longer need to refer language access cases to MOIA. The City has made a united effort to increase language and communications access. City offices now use translation and interpretation services in their everyday operations. They can respond to in-person interpretation requests, including ASL and Deaf Interpreters. They also have access to Video Remote Interpretation (VRI) for walk-ins. Or, Communication Access Real-time Translation (CART) for longer meetings.

MOIA also partners with community organizations to serve constituents. On September 28, hundreds of people will be at Roxbury Crossing for Citizenship Day. This annual event attracts over 350 applicants for U.S. citizenship. Since 2014, 1,444 applicants  submitted applications on Citizenship Day. Over 350 volunteers, law students, and attorneys are also expected to show. In a city where 1 in 4 residents is an immigrant, this event matters.

Language and communications access are crucial for a successful Citizenship Day. U.S. citizenship applications must be completed in English. Certain applicants aged 50 years or older may be eligible for language exemptions. These are the “50/20” and “55/15” exemptions. But all other applicants must fill out the application themselves in English.  Multilingual volunteers pre-screen applicants for the required level of English. They also fulfill American Sign Language (ASL) and Certified Deaf Interpreter requests. Applicants who need more English skills receive information on learning resources.

As a collaborating partner, MOIA manages event outreach. They design multilingual materials and advertise the English-language rule to potential applicants. MOIA collaborates with local ethnic media outlets to promote the event. On previous Citizenship Days, some immigrant groups have had lower representation. MOIA addresses this by working with local community groups for outreach support. MOIA even sends out translated appointment reminders to applicants through the AlertBoston system. MOIA and Project Citizenship work together to pool resources. Thus, they are able to plan a united approach. 

Events like Citizenship Day are important. They show that planning is essential to successful engagement. They show the importance of collaboration. And they show the value of language and communications access. As such, MOIA aims to continue such efforts and programs. They will be a continued presence within the immigrant community and City of Boston as a whole. 

The Office of Language and Communication Access works to strengthen the City of Boston so that services, programs and activities are meaningfully accessible to all constituents. To learn more, visit the Language and Communications Access website.