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Language Access

by Farieha (Fia) Shah, Senior Language Access Coordinator in Ayuda’s Language Access Program

The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 8% of people in the US (25.1 million people) are Limited English Proficient (LEP). LEP refers to individuals who are not fluent in, or have difficulty communicating in, English. While most LEPs are immigrants, nearly 4.7 million were born in the US. LEP populations also include deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals. According to data compiled by Galludet University, anywhere from 0.9% to 2.2% of the US population has a severe hearing impairment or are deaf.

Due to the US’ sizeable LEP population, there is a strong need for language access – this entails providing equitable access to, and understanding of, universally available services. As the Department of State defines it, language access involves “reasonable efforts to eliminate or reduce limited English proficiency as a barrier to accessing … programs or activities.” Additionally, the Department also advocates that this “is based on the principle that it is the responsibility of the Department and not the LEP person to take reasonable steps to ensure that communications … are not impaired.

It’s not only about communicating. Language access allows individuals to equally participate in society and use the services available to them. People should not be penalized and isolated due to the language they use to communicate. Therefore, the onus for levelling the ability to converse is on the party that uses the dominant language. Without language access, we deprive individuals of their dignity and skirt our moral, and oftentimes legal, obligations.

Without language access, we deprive individuals of their dignity and skirt our moral, and oftentimes legal, obligations.

The legal basis for providing language access dates back to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on national origin. However, the above only concerns federal agencies and organizations that receive federal funding. Some states have implemented their own language access policies.  However, these mostly cover state agencies’, and organizations funded by state agencies. This results in an ad hoc system where LEPs are entitled to communication in their language, but only in very specific circumstances. Even with this limited federal law, the implementation is less than ideal. Laura K Abel’s extensive research on federal courts’ language access has shown them to be lacking. For example, federal courts only certify Spanish interpreters, and so for court interpreters working in any other language, the measures for gauging competence are less vigorous than in many state courts. Moreover, Abel found that in some civil cases “federal district courts and bankruptcy courts usually do not provide interpreters … Some [LEPs] are told to bring “a trusted friend or family member”—whose language proficiency is unknown, and who may have separate interests in the litigation.” This results in a different language access landscape state to state, and the implementation varies case by case. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how communication disparities deeply hurt LEPs. Research by Type Media Center has shown that people with limited English proficiency “are more likely to get COVID-19 and to die from it than are fluent English speakers. And poor language access may be delaying their vaccination.” Moreover, the situation at the southern border has shown some of the legal implications of not enacting effective language access policies. As the New Yorker reported in January 2020, Mario Perez Domingo’s daughter was taken away by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) because he was asked a series of questions in Spanish, which he barely speaks as his native tongue is Mam (an indigenous Guatemalan language), and he was not able to communicate the origins of his daughter’s birth certificate. 

The article also included a statement from “a former volunteer at the South Texas Family Residential Center, in Dilley, Texas, the nation’s largest immigrant-detention center, [they stated] that cases can turn on the difference between competent and incompetent translation.” Additionally, according to a 2018 report from Center for American Progress, two minors in DHS custody died because they could not communicate their medical needs. These examples illustrate how a lack of language access has debilitating legal and, sometimes, deadly consequences for immigrants.

- Ayuda’s Language Access Program functions with the basic tenant that we have an obligation to support the immigrants who come to the US and help them integrate safely and holistically.

Ayuda’s Language Access Program (LAP) offers our Interpreter Bank programs to vital victim and legal services providers so that they do not have to turn clients away due to communication barriers. Ayuda’s LAP works with approximately 99 providers and 55 law firms handling pro bono cases in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. We bridge communication gaps by providing free in-person and remote interpretation via local, professionally trained interpreters; on-demand telephonic interpretation; and document translations. 

Ayuda’s Language Access Program also trains interpreters, lawyers, and advocates on how best to serve LEP clients. In our last fiscal year, we sent interpreters to 1,464 meetings, translated 934 documents, and provided instant, telephonic interpretation in 6,574 instances. With a combination of these three services, we believe immigrants can receive more comprehensive access to the care they need to thrive in their new home. 

Ayuda’s Language Access Program functions with the basic tenant that we have an obligation to support the immigrants who come to the US and help them integrate safely and holistically. Language access reduces gaps in providing the essential legal services which allow immigrants to have their documents ready and, therefore, have access to the crucial services they need to live full, happy lives. The more organizations that have their own language access policies and support, the more we can ensure an equal and just society where the language you use to communicate is not a hinderance but simply a fact of life. 

Farieha (Fia) Shah is the Senior Language Access Coordinator in Ayuda’s Language Access Program. As a member of this team she has advocated for Language Access and Language Justice and works with interpreters and service providers in the DC, MD, and VA region to advance immigrant rights. Fia grew up in Pakistan and is fluent in Urdu as well as English. She received her BA in History from George Washington University and her MA in South Asian Area Studies from SOAS University of London.

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