Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered state agencies Thursday to translate documents and provide interpreters in six languages for immigrants seeking public services.
The $1.5 million effort covered by state and federal funds will also provide the translations to illegal immigrants, depending on what services they seek, Cuomo said. Immigrants won't be asked about their federal immigration status.
The project will translate documents and websites from agencies including social services and motor vehicles into Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Russian, French and French Creole. The group New York Lawyers for the Public Interest estimates 2.5 million immigrants in New York require help understanding English. The new initiative includes state workers as translators and translators from a hired service.
Cuomo said state government for too long made immigrants responsible for learning enough English to apply for public services.
"It's government's responsibility to figure out how to communicate with the person," Cuomo said.
"This is the problem with government today," said state Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long. "We try to do everything for everybody. When immigrants came here at one time, they focused on learning English as fast as possible so they could assimilate into the American culture.
"This is only enabling people to not try to assimilate because the government will take care of them, which is only increasing the cost of government," Long said.
Alabama recently enacted laws that require police to act if they suspect someone of being an illegal immigrant, businesses to check the legal status of workers and schools to report the immigration status of students. Supporters said the measures were prompted by lack of enforcement of laws against illegal immigration.
Cuomo said the "New York experience" is different.
"Most of us are immigrants that made this state the greatest state in the country, we're proud of it," Cuomo said, opening his news conference in Italian. "We invite people here ... so to the extent we can expedite and facilitate communication among our family members, that's exactly what we're going to do."
Secretary of State Cesar Perales said children of immigrants have often had to act as interpreters, relaying to officials why their mothers need government help to feed their families. He called it "one of the greatest indignities" he ever saw.
Some Republican senators had complained in 2009 that a measure to translate ballots into Russian was a Democratic attempt to register more Democrats among New York City's growing Russian population. Spanish-speaking New Yorkers, those from Puerto Rico as well as immigrants, have usually provided a strong Democratic vote in New York.
There was no immediate comment from the current Republican majority in the Senate.
The Legislature, led by Latino lawmakers, had pushed several times for the translations, but the bills were rejected by previous governors as too expensive.
The Cuomo administration says the $1.5 million interpreter contract using current employees would have to be extended in the 2012-13 budget due in April. The service provides a way for state agencies to translate applications and documents and to contact state workers who are interpreters in various languages.
Cuomo said the money can be found in the state's $137 billion budget, even with a projected $2 billion deficit.
"New York state government simply cannot do its job if it cannot communicate with millions of New Yorkers who need to report crimes, or seek vital services," said Javier Valdes, deputy director of Make the Road New York, an immigrants' advocacy group.