HSD language services get funding back after special session

The state must start offering translations and interpretations in 20 languages under a federal court agreement

By: - April 14, 2022 4:59 am

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Despite a setback, New Mexico is closer to meeting its obligations to translate and interpret for people navigating state offices as they seek aid for food, health care and more.

Money is back on the table to pay for a new state mandate that all state agencies — from Human Services to the Children, Youth and Families Department — coordinate language access plans and resources.

Language barriers surround state services

The New Mexico Legislature passed a bill just this year requiring the state to improve language services, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed it. But money to fund it was an innocent bystander in the governor’s veto of a $50 million spending package known as the junior bill.

Sachi Watase with the New Mexico Asian Families Center lobbied for the legislation that had overwhelming support but was left in limbo after the veto.

“It could mean that each of these agencies are required to just figure it out on their own and just with the funding they already have,” Watase said shortly after the veto was announced.

Well, that concern can be thrown to the wind. Legislators passed a near carbon copy of the vetoed spending bill during the special session last week that includes $110,000 needed to implement the law.

Advocates say they are excited for the money and say they hope the money — in conjunction with the federal lawsuit addressing access for people accessing SNAP and medical benefits — New Mexico will remove language barriers to services.

Verenice Peregrino Pompa is an attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty that is handling the federal case.

The Human Services Department was ordered to add language options for people who call for state services. Taglines that offer people interpretation and translation services must be in these 20 languages:

  • Spanish
  • Tagalog
  • Vietnamese
  • Simplified Chinese
  • Traditional Chinese
  • Swahili
  • Diné
  • Arabic
  • Dari
  • Farsi
  • Korean
  • Thai
  • Japanese
  • French
  • Russian
  • Korean
  • Pashto
  • Laotian
  • Hindi
  • Gujarati

“The lawsuit and the bill are just making state agencies do what’s already required by law,” she said. “So there’s already federal guidance about what meaningful language access actually means.”

In New Mexico, meaningful language access is providing options for translation and interpretation at the beginning of every interaction between a state agency and residents. That means every call for food assistance must have automated options in multiple languages, or every letter from Medicaid should have guidelines on how people can request translation or an interpreter.

Peregrino Pompa said the court recently moved to require the state to implement these changes right away. In order to accelerate this process, the judge waived the requirement for the state to conduct a survey of the languages spoken by people applying for services to Human Services Department.

“It was going to be really difficult to collect that data. And some people, they’ve historically been excluded. So that was going to be a really hard thing to be able to gather all the data of people that speak different languages,” she said. “So instead of having to do the survey, we agreed in the stipulated order on the translations of documents.”

Every new application sent for services from HSD must now include a tag line asking people their preferred language. This also must be included in any mail correspondence for anyone with an active case. Folks who call will hear a new option asking people if they want to continue with Spanish, English or be routed to a person who can translate in one of at least 20 different languages, according to the judge’s order.

“Even before, let’s say, the phone system is updated, they are by law entitled to get an interpreter. So once the phone system is updated, it’ll be easier, because I’ll be able to press three or whatever,” Peregrino Pompa said. “But in the meantime, for them to know that they can call HSD and should be given an interpreter if they request one or or go to the offices and request one.”

The court also has specific instructions for how the state must go about offering translation services for Native American languages spoken in the state. Diné is listed in the stipulated order, but other languages spoken in tribal communities could be added if they choose to participate. The state is ordered to contact sovereign nations to set up a formal consultation to see if translation services for SNAP and Medicaid would benefit their citizens. Those requests must be sent by April 18. 

“This is an important change for our communities,” she said. “Because again, we want to make sure that people are not excluded from being able to access state benefits, regardless of the language they speak.”

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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.