Language access legislation clears the NM House

By: - February 9, 2022 5:31 pm

N.M. House votes on the language access measure, HB 22. (Courtesy of the New Mexico Legislature)

An effort to shrink language barriers for people trying to access state assistance with health care, food and housing services was passed by the New Mexico House of Representatives 42-23 Wednesday afternoon.

The vote split along party lines, with every Republican present voting against the measure. Five representatives abstained, including three Democrats.

“This is really a large step towards making sure that New Mexicans, all New Mexicans, get equitable access to the services intended to support them,” said Sachi Watase with The New Mexico Asian Family Center. 

Language barriers surround state services

The organization  offers language services to people that need help connecting with  state support, and it’s part of a federal lawsuit that prompted the state’s Human Services Department to examine gaps in aid to people who do not speak English or Spanish.

Watase said a coalition pushed to get legislation like this moving, and it has taken decades.

“It’s been the community. It’s been families. It’s been community caseworkers. It’s been health care providers,” she said. “Now, hopefully, it’ll just be the next step for these agencies to be able to really follow best practices that other states are following to help the state agencies create these plans.”

House Bill 22 heads to the Senate, which must act quickly as the 30-day Legislative session is scheduled to end next week on Feb. 17. 

Watase said the recent court order for HSD to survey people trying to access state services about language barriers did have some sway with lawmakers. 

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

A federal court is requiring the Human Services Department to conduct a 90-day survey of anyone who contacts their offices about what language services they need.

During debate, supporters argued HB 22 would align New Mexico with national standards on language access and would qualify the state for federal funds to pay for these translation and interpretation services.

Funding for the effort was stripped from HB 22 but $110,000 is expected to be a part of the capital outlay process, paying for the bulk of setting up the services within state agencies. Advocates say they hope to pull down an annual appropriation for improving language access to state agencies. 

According to the Legislative Finance Committee, state agencies would need anywhere between $25,000 to $42,000 each year to maintain language services. 

“We also have state agencies who showed support of the bill,” Watase said. “And so that’s also really huge, because they also really want to be able to serve their communities as best they can and haven’t had the infrastructure in our state to be able to do that.”

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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. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.