AIKEN - The rapid rise of Aiken County's Hispanic population is marked by increased friction between newcomers who can't speak English and police, teachers, store clerks and government workers who can't speak Spanish.
Hispanic leaders estimate the county's Latino population at about 10,000 people, three times what U.S. Census Bureau data showed in 2000. The influx is straining county services, and officials are scurrying to catch up.
"We're probably a little behind the curve," County Administrator Clay Killian said Monday.
Evidence of a communication barrier surfaced most recently on Nov. 8, when two bounty hunters terrorized a Hispanic neighborhood in Clearwater posing as police officers, according to authorities. The incident wasn't reported to the Aiken County Sheriff's Office until a bilingual rent collector stepped forward a week later.
Investigators were forced to rely on Luis Navarro, who works in the victims' services department of the 2nd Circuit Solicitor's Office, to handle translation in the Clearwater case. That's because the department has no full-time interpreters, although a handful of officers speak Spanish and dozens of others have taken entry-level language courses. There are no bilingual dispatchers in Aiken County to handle 911 calls made in Spanish.
"Dispatchers do the best they can, to be honest," Sheriff Michael Frank said. "We've been able to keep up with the needs so far."
Officials said the communication barrier can be agonizing for non-English-speaking Hispanics who need to pay taxes or fees but lack documentation that could ease the process.
Chris Ceasar, the county's public information officer, said she saw the problem increasing about a year ago.
"We have Hispanics who come into our building on a daily basis who need assistance, and we are unable to give it to them properly," she said. "Our county is changing, and we need to be prepared for the change."
About 20 county employees from departments that deal directly with the public are taking a 10-week Command Spanish course Ms. Ceasar has established. The course, which starts again in January, costs the county $225 per student and teaches basic speaking skills.
Many of Aiken County's schools teach English as a second language to children, who often have to interpret for their parents. Teachers say parents who can't speak English run into problems if a pupil has learning problems or is sick at school and the parent can't understand what's happening.
"It's sort of scary, to be honest," said LaWana McKenzie, Aiken County councilwoman and principal of Jefferson Elementary School.
She said county-sponsored English courses could help, such as those the Aiken Salvation Army plans to offer early next year for free. The group has opened the La Voz de Aiken Hispanica, or Latin Voice of Aiken, which helps Hispanics with insurance, health care and other everyday needs.
Capt. Juan Guadalupe, who runs the outreach program, said many Hispanics struggle to get along.
"For some, there is no communication at all," he said. "If they don't have somebody who speaks the language, they won't be aware of what's going on until it's too late."
Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 279-6895 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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