New Mexico still discriminates in SNAP, Medicaid applications, advocates argue in court filing

People who don’t speak either English or Spanish don’t have equal access to benefits, according to testimony

By: - October 7, 2021 5:15 am
Sign about food stamp benefits

(Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

A single mother who only speaks Vietnamese went to a state office to get medical insurance for her 10-year-old son, but no one working there could understand her, so they told her to hire a private interpreter and come back.

A domestic violence survivor who speaks Cantonese and some Mandarin, whose only income is SNAP and cash assistance, must talk to state officials through an interpreter whenever she needs to talk about her case, because all of the records she gets from the state are in English and she has no way to directly get an interpreter when she calls by phone.

A worker who lives alone but supports her son in China and only speaks Mandarin had to sleep on the floor of her business because she could no longer afford rent when the pandemic hit. She waited three weeks to start receiving SNAP and Medicaid payments because she didn’t get a call for her interview and wasn’t able to call by herself to reschedule.

Those are just some of the sworn statements filed in federal court on Tuesday Oct. 5 in support of a legal effort by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty to force the state to comply with federal law and provide translation and interpretation services for tens of thousands of New Mexicans who qualify for food stamps and health insurance but do not speak English or Spanish.

They include more than 11,500 Diné speakers, nearly 2,900 Vietnamese speakers, more than 2,000 Chinese speakers, more than 1,760 Keres speakers, more than 1,500 German speakers, and more than 1,200 Zuni speakers, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Extra burdens

The New Mexico Asian Family Center helps also translate and interpret for New Mexicans applying for the benefits who speak Arabic, Korean, Japanese, Dari, and Swahili, said Anhdao Bui, the agency’s social services director. She oversees its case management, counseling and legal services.

Bui’s clients struggled during the pandemic, she said, and delays in help from the Human Services Department (HSD) made it even harder for them.

“They’re trying to scrape money together to buy food, or pay their bills,” she said. “It’s really heartbreaking to see all the struggles that they have to go through to get benefits that they deserve and should be getting in the first place.”

Getting help

The New Mexico Asian Family Center, established in 2006, primarily serves survivors of crime like domestic violence and sexual assault, and often refers them to New Mexico’s Human Services Department and other state agencies. For translation services, email [email protected].

“We believe that everyone should have access to food and health care, regardless of the language that they speak,” Bui said. 

Even though translation and interpretation services are required under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, Bui said her clients are often paying private interpreters to help them understand what HSD was telling them about their benefits.

She said some interpreters charge between $10 and $25 to interpret a single document, or between $25 and $50 per hour to accompany a person to appointments at the benefits office.

“So here they’re paying hundreds of dollars to the interpreter, and then getting benefits from the Human Services Department, and I just feel like that’s almost a wash, they’re not really getting any benefits at all,” Bui said.

Multiple people who only speak Vietnamese had to use applications in English, and subsequent notices for the program were also only in English, she said. This has caused them to repeatedly lose out on benefits.

In a sworn statement filed in court alongside the stories mentioned above, Bui says the agency has diverted limited resources to hiring more community liaisons who speak Chinese, Vietnamese and Dari, a Persian dialect spoken in Afghanistan, to help people apply for SNAP and Medicaid.

“This burden has been put on our organization because of HSD’s failure to provide these services for our community,” she said in the sworn statement. “Our budget was further burdened by having to provide one time rent/mortgage payment and utility funds to support clients whose benefits were delayed because of lack of interpreting and translation services when applying for benefits.”

‘Deliberate indifference’

In August 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth John Gonzales ordered HSD to, among other things, comply with federal civil rights law by implementing food stamp procedures to best serve households in the state “with adult members who are not proficient in English.”

What the law requires

Federal law and a 2018 consent decree require New Mexico to translate applications and other documents to people applying for SNAP and Medicaid. It must also provide free interpretation services.

More than two years later, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty alleges that HSD still has not done so. The center on Tuesday asked the court to enforce the consent decree and enter an order requiring the state to provide interpreters and to translate certification materials, notices and other vital documents.

Verenice Peregrino Pompa, the public benefits attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said in an interview they filed the motion because HSD refuses to translate the application into languages spoken by many New Mexicans or to provide interpreting to those people when they seek help.

“It’s unacceptable that HSD continues to discriminate against people by failing to translate the documents, with full knowledge that families are being harmed by this,” Peregrino Pompa said. “Some people have been unable to apply for Medicaid and SNAP. They have to get help from a third party, often it’s a community organization.”

In an emailed statement to Source New Mexico on Oct. 5, HSD spokesperson Jodi McGinnis Porter said the state is opposed to the motion and insisted that the state is following the law.

“The Human Services Department is in compliance with the federal law, provides application materials in both English and Spanish and for other languages, interpretation services to applicants who need assistance,” McGinnis Porter said. “According to our federal partners, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and USDA Food and Nutrition Service, HSD is fully compliant with the required translation and interpretation services.”

Federal law explicitly requires translation into languages in addition to Spanish, Peregrino Pompa said. HSD does not do this. Its website and phone system are in English and Spanish only and do not directly offer interpreters.

“The excuse that the federal government hasn’t caught HSD shows deliberate indifference to the reality facing New Mexicans and does not give HSD a license to violate people’s rights,” Peregrino Pompa said. “So if you speak a different language, you need help from another person to navigate to an operator to ask for an interpreter. People shouldn’t need an interpreter to get an interpreter.”

Peregrino Pompa said the Center on Law and Poverty has not seen documentation that federal authorities are aware of the demographics in New Mexico. They also have not seen documentation that the feds have found HSD to be in compliance with the law.

“However, federal oversight tracks a limited number of priorities, and language access is often not fully enforced,” she said. “HSD should be working with community members and plaintiffs in this case to resolve ongoing barriers to food and health care.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.