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Public benefits updates

State illegally denies families food and medical assistance because it fails to provide translation and interpretation

Thousands of New Mexicans who qualify for food and medical assistance are illegally denied or delayed access to benefits because the state does not provide translation and interpretation services, charges a motion filed today by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty on behalf of applicants for food and medical assistance in the lawsuit Deborah Hatten Gonzales v. David Scrase

The motion asks the US District Court of New Mexico to order the New Mexico’s Human Services Department to comply with federal and court ordered requirements to translate food and medical assistance applications, notices, and informational materials into languages prominently spoken in New Mexico’s communities. 

Many New Mexicans speak languages other than English in numbers that require translation of food and medical assistance applications and documents under federal laws, including Vietnamese, Chinese, Dari, Arabic, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, and Diné. However, the state only provides written documents in English and Spanish. 

Advocates and applicants in the lawsuit report experiencing long delays and barriers in accessing food and medical care, which was especially difficult during the pandemic. Some lost food assistance multiple times because the notice about renewing benefits is only in English. Others reported having to pay private interpreters, despite having no income and having to deal with unnecessary in person contact during the public health emergency.

An HSD office turned away Cuc T. Nguyen, a mother of a 13-year-old son, when she tried to apply for Medicaid because applications were in English only and the worker did not provide a Vietnamese interpreter. HSD staff illegally told her to come back with her own interpreter although by federal law HSD is required to provide applications in Vietnamese and access to an interpreter. 

Community-based organizations that work directly with New Mexicans that speak languages other than English or Spanish, like the New Mexico Asian Family Center and the Refugee Well-being Project, report having to divert limited resources to provide translation and interpretation services that are the state’s responsibility under federal law. 

To help families who could not apply for or renew benefits on their own due to language barriers, the New Mexico Asian Family Center has taken on additional clients and diverted resources meant to assist survivors of domestic violence during the pandemic. 

“Everyone who qualifies should be able to access state services regardless of the language they speak,” said AnhDao Bui of the New Mexico Asian Families Center. “Excluding some people because they don’t speak English exacerbates health and economic disparities. This kind of discrimination is not new. Lack of translation is part of a systemic problem that ignores the existence of Asians in New Mexico.” 

HSD’s continued discrimination violates families’ civil rights and illegally forces New Mexicans to go without food and medical care. The motion charges that despite repeated attempts since 2009 to bring these issues to the New Mexico Human Service Department’s attention, in April 2021, HSD refused again to take further action to comply. 

“It’s unacceptable that HSD continues to discriminate against people by failing to translate documents with full knowledge that families are being harmed as a consequence,” said Verenice Peregrino Pompa, attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “Now more than ever, HSD should be working with community members and plaintiffs in this case to resolve ongoing barriers to food and healthcare.” 

The long-running Hatten-Gonzales lawsuit was originally filed in 1989. In 2016, the court held former HSD Secretary Brent Earnest in contempt for failing to remove systemic barriers to assistance for eligible families applying for food and Medicaid assistance and appointed a Special Master to monitor and make recommendations to the department. While HSD has made some progress, the court recently ordered HSD to implement a corrective action plan. 

The motion can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Doc.-1011_Motion-to-Enforce-Translation-and-Interpretation-2021-10-05.pdf

The exhibits can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Doc.-1011_-Exhibits-to-Motion-to-Enforce-2021-10-05.pdf

The September 2021 order for HSD to implement a corrective action plan can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Doc.-1009-Order-Re-Case-Review-CAP-2021-09-09.pdf