State aid and services about to become more accessible language-wise

Advocates say the new law just signed by the governor can knock over barriers for people seeking food, housing and health care

By: - March 4, 2022 4:30 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)

State agencies will be required to expand access for people who speak languages other than English in New Mexico under a law signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham Wednesday.

The governor added her signature to House Bill 22, signaling a commitment by the state to remove barriers non-English speakers face while working with state government in trying to access food, housing, employment, health care and other basics.

“We often are celebrating the diversity of this state, and in the past, we hadn’t actually been following through with that diversity through language access,” said Sachi Watase of the New Mexico Asian Family Center. “And so this is a huge step for us. I think, as a state, to really practice what we preach.”

The bill goes into effect July 1, 2022. It was sponsored by several legislators from Albuquerque — Reps. Kay Bounkeau and Patricia Roybal Caballero, as well as Sens. Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez and Mimi Stewart.

Language barriers surround state services

“There’s so many people who have really, really put so much effort into this, community members who’ve experienced this, essential workers who have been on the ground witnessing this,” Watase said.

The first step for state agencies like the Children Youth and Families Department to survey the languages used by families who visit their offices. From there, the state will develop plans to integrate translation and interpretation services for New Mexicans.

“Hopefully it’ll help the state agencies as well, because it’s not necessarily the fault of a phone teller, somebody who’s answering the call … because they may not be getting that training in the first place,” Watase said.

The Human Services Department will be one step ahead in the process due to a federal lawsuit brought by community coalitions, including the New Mexico Asian Family Center, that said the agencies within HSD do not provide adequate translation or interpretation services.

We often are celebrating the diversity of this state, and in the past, we hadn't actually been following through with that diversity through language access, and so this is a huge step for us. I think, as a state, to really practice what we preach.

– Sachi Watase, New Mexico Asian Family Center

The lawsuit is argued by the New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty. Advocates point out that the languages spoken in the state go beyond English and Spanish, and include Vietnamese, Chinese, Dari, Arabic, Swahili, Kinyarwanda and Diné.

“Our state’s cultures and languages are some of our greatest strengths,” said Verenice Peregrino Pompa, an attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

Language access legislation clears the NM House

The state typically only provides written documents in English, and at times, in Spanish, and oral interpreters can be difficult to reach without additional help, according to the court arguments.

In January, a federal judge sided with the coalition and ordered HSD to survey languages used by clients. Last week the judge took the order further, requiring the department to include information about accessing language services on Medicaid notices. HSD must also immediately add multiple language options to its automated phone system.

The department has until July 15, 2022 to complete its survey.

It’s unclear if the requirement from the lawsuit and the new state law will intersect, in terms of identifying best practices or vendors.

House Bill 22 requires agencies to submit annual reports about language access to the governor and Legislative Finance Committee. Part of the yearly assessment will allow the state to budget competitive salaries for potential state employees who are multilingual.

The original $50,00 for language access services was amended out of the first proposal for House Bill 22. Two recurring appropriations in Senate Bill 48, also known as the junior bill, were added to fund the costs of HB 22. Rep. Kay Bounkeua allocated $60,000, and Rep. Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez allocated $50,000 in capital outlay spending.


This story was updated on Tuesday, March 8, at 8 p.m. to accurately reflect the amount of money that’s been allocated to language access services.

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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.