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Courts adapting to challenges posed by growing immigrant populations

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Increasingly, the people coming into our courts reflect the changing face of America and of Western New York. They include people from across the world, some of whom speak languages which don't even exist in a written form but are in our community and in our schools.

The crossroads of the world is somewhere in the district of Common Council member David Rivera on Buffalo's West Side. Besides his post in City Hall, Rivera is also a church pastor and a retired police detective. He exists in a world of linguistic diversity, trying to help residents and constituents who wind up dealing with the justice system.

"They have to have translators. It's hard to express yourself alone in your language. Imagine trying to express yourself in the court system and not knowing the language. I do believe they have translators there, I can't tell you for certain. I know they have certain translators for certain languages. As far as the myriad of languages, I think in certain schools, they teach in up to 45 languages," said Rivera. 

There are so many languages that Family Court Judge Lisa Bloch Rodwin has a a phone translation system for some tongues that no certified interpreter speaks locally. That's why she is now on a statewide Advisory Council on Immigration Issues in Family Court, seeking to make the system work better.

Neighborhood Legal Services lawyer Sharon Nosenchuk sees that diversity.

"In the Buffalo community, we have received so many refugees from all over the world, refugees and asylum seekers, we are now representing people from everywhere from Burma to Eritrea," Nosenchuk said.

That is a complication in the court system, with its tilt to the massive population in the New York City area, leaving a legal process heavy on Chinese language materials and light on languages like Amharic, spoken by the Ethiopian immigrants around this town.

Bloch Rodwin said there is a major effort to get all the participants and agencies to learn about immigrants who come into the courts. The judge said one speaker to a training session summarized the disconnect between the system and the new Americans.

"They have to take their kids to a corner and a big yellow truck will come and take away their children and if they stand back at that corner at 3 o'clock, the big yellow truck will bring their children home. They don't know where the school is. They don't know the names of the teachers. They don't know what an open houses is or a parent teacher night or homework. They just know that in America, you bring your kids to the corner in the morning and the big yellow truck will take them for the day," said Bloch Rodwin.

There are now a series of efforts among justices and criminal justice agencies to meet with the people and explain the system and its limitations.

"We go into the community. There's teams, we go in teams—myself, somebody from Child Protection, somebody from the Buffalo Police. The FBI often sends an individual, somebody from Housing Court, and we go and explain to the community what our system is, how it works and what we can do to help families and keep them safe," she added.

Bloch Rodwin explained that many immigrants come from countries where there is no functioning court system or where it is believed the system can't be trusted.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.