Language barriers surround state services

New Mexico agencies could begin communicating and offering info in languages other than English and Spanish, creating a bridge to badly needed food and medical aid

By: - February 9, 2022 4:45 am

A clinician in PPE (personal protective equipment) (R) cares for a COVID-19 patient as a translator is seen on screen during a video call in the COVID ward at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center on Dec. 21, 2020 in Chula Vista, California. (Photo by Mario Tama / Getty Images)

UPDATE: Thursday, Feb. 17, at 9 a.m.

Legislation to fund state interpretation and translation services for people who speak languages other than English or Spanish cleared both the House and the Senate and awaits the governor’s signature.

New Mexico is on the cusp of lowering language barriers for people trying to access services such as housing, worker’s compensation and medical assistance.

Demand for housing, food and medical services in New Mexico is increasing, while people who do not speak English are experiencing delays to state aid. Last month, a federal judge ruled the state’s Human Services Department must determine the scope of exactly how many people are encountering language barriers while trying to communicate with HSD divisions.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are moving legislation to the House floor that will fund interpretation and translation services for people not fluent in English who interact with state agencies. In particular, the bill would address the growing need for interpreters who speak one of the many languages spoken in New Mexico that are not English or Spanish.

The Center for Law and Poverty sued the state’s Human Services Department, which resulted in a court order requiring agencies to collect data on languages spoken by anyone who accesses food or medical assistance programs. 

Verenice Peregrino Pompa, an attorney on the case said some staffers with state agencies aren’t aware of the interpretation services that already exist, which causes confusion for people looking for access. 

On top of that, the bureaucracy is set up in a way that can be intimidating to people before they even make their first phone call.

“We say this a lot that people almost need an interpreter to get interpreting, right, so they have to have somebody navigate the phone system for them,” she said.

The lawsuit alleges state agencies like HSD only provide written documents in English and Spanish. Oral interpreters are difficult to reach, and although pandemic regulations created an easier option for people to meet remotely via video web conference, the issue of finding an interpreter can delay someone’s request for necessary food or medical services. 

She said pandemic-related issues have increased the demand for state services that offer food, medical and housing assistance. This has widened gaps in the system that existed well before the pandemic. 

Exactly how many people need those services is unknown. The judge’s order for HSD to conduct a language-access survey only calls for a 90-day review, which does worry some like Peregrino Pompa who say it might not be enough time to accurately get a sampling of the more than 1.5 million New Mexicans using the services annually.

“Our lawsuit against HSD is an important first step for an agency complying with federal law by basically doing an analysis of the population they serve to better understand the demographics and the languages spoken by our communities,” she said. “Everyone deserves these services regardless of the language that they speak.”

Sachi Watase said The New Mexico Asian Families Center opened in 2006 in part to address the issues of language barriers community members face.

“This kind of language discrimination is not new. Unfortunately, too many New Mexicans’ health and safety are predefined by these inequitable barriers,” she said. “Lack of translation is part of a systemic problem that ignores the existence of Asians in New Mexico.”

Language lives at the roots of New Mexico’s multicultural capital and has grown beyond what she calls the “tri-cultural myth” that divides the state up as being only Indigenous, Hispanic and Anglo, perpetuating blind spots such as the language barriers for people trying to access basic needs and services.

“It really has really serious ramifications because it excludes Black and Asian and Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian communities,” Watase said. “And it’s a self-perpetuating problem because of the lack of investment in those communities.”

The lawsuit cites languages spoken in New Mexico, including Vietnamese, Chinese, Dari, Arabic, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, Diné and other traditional Indigenous languages.

“I think there’s also this kind of notion that our communities are, quote unquote, statistically insignificant, because they are smaller, which is very dehumanizing. And it is really painful because it means, like, at what point are we considered worthy of services and investment?” Watase said.

Peter Katel provides interpretations for predominantly Spanish-speaking people in Albuquerque on behalf of the members-driven organization Organizers in the Land of Enchantment, or OLÉ. His work is often in a court setting where he says he mostly focuses on worker’s compensation claims. Katel said many of his clients do have a basic grasp of English, but that technical language in court can often create confusion for his clients. 

“New Mexico is full of people who have good day-to-day knowledge of English,” he said. “But when it comes to legal matters, they may really not be up on all the terminology. It can make the difference between doing well in the case or not doing so well.” 

Katel said court services are reasonable when working with someone who has language issues.

“I think it’s fair to say that we’re, we’re talking about not a very high-income population,” he said. “It’s a really good thing that we’re in a state where the courts step up and make sure that if people go to court, they have access to high-quality interpretation. And the same for community organizations who make sure that their members can fully understand what’s going on in meetings.”

OLÉ provides translation and interpretation free of charge to its members and also fully supports the legislation proposed to fund these services in state agencies. 

House Bill 22 is sponsored by several Democratic representatives and is moving through committees. It’s currently on the House temporary calendar, which means it could get a vote on the floor before the end of the 30-day session on Feb. 17.

The bill originally asked for a $50,000 appropriation but that was taken out with an amendment. According to the Legislative Finance Committee, the cost to implement these changes at the state level is anywhere between $25,000 to $42,000 and would come from the general fund’s annual spending.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Most recently he covered Indigenous affairs with New Mexico In Depth. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.