Court orders state to identify languages spoken by families trying to access food and medical assistance

Ruling comes as HB 22, mandating state agencies plan for translation and interpretation services, works its way through Legislature.

ALBUQUERQUE—Last week, a federal court ordered the New Mexico Human Services Department to collect data on the languages spoken by New Mexicans served by the state’s food and medical assistance program and affirmed the agency’s legal obligation to translate documents based on the demographics of those served by local agency offices. 

“We are relieved and heartened by the judge’s order. Everyone, including those who speak languages other than English, deserves to have access to the resources intended to support them,” said Sachi Watase of the New Mexico Asian Families Center. “This kind of language discrimination is not new. Unfortunately, too many New Mexicans’ health and safety are predefined by these inequitable barriers. Lack of translation is part of a systemic problem that ignores the existence of Asians in New Mexico.”

The order gives HSD no more than 30 days to develop and begin conducting a 90-day survey and submit a report on the findings no later than 15 days after the survey is completed.

New Mexican families who speak languages other than English have reported barriers accessing food and medical assistance, which has been especially difficult during the pandemic. Some lost food assistance multiple times because notices about renewing benefits are 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. 

Despite repeated attempts since 2009 to bring these issues to HSD’s attention, the agency refused to address them. Applicants for food and medical assistance, represented by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, filed a motion in October 2021 in the Deborah Hatten Gonzales v. David Scrase lawsuit. US District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales ruled on the motion last Friday. 

“Everyone should have access to state services, regardless of the language they speak. The court order requiring HSD to gather language data from families seeking benefits is an important first step toward providing meaningful access to state services for New Mexicans,” said Verenice Peregrino Pompa, attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

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, have to divert limited resources and take on additional clients to provide translation and interpretation services that are the state’s responsibility under federal and state law. 

Many New Mexicans speak languages other than English–including Vietnamese, Chinese, Dari, Arabic, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, and Diné. Many of these languages meet population thresholds that require translation of food and medical assistance applications and documents under federal law. However, the state only provides written documents in English and Spanish and oral interpreters are nearly impossible to reach without additional help. 

A bill, sponsored by Representatives Kay Bounkeua and Roybal Caballero and currently moving through the Legislature, could further help to rectify state agencies’ lack of adequate translation and interpretation. House Bill 22: Limited English Access To State Programs would require all state agencies with secretaries to perform a similar language use analysis and develop an agency language access plan. Last Friday, the same day the court order was issued, the bill passed the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee.

“A plan is critical so agencies can determine how to best provide the necessary translation and interpretation services that many New Mexicans need to access state services,” said Peregrino Pompa.

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.

The court order can be found here: https://cookieless-offload.s3.us-west-2.amazonaws.com/nmpovertylaw/Order-Language+Access-DHG-2022-01-21-compressed.pdf

The September 2021 order for HSD to implement a corrective action plan can be found here:  https://drive.google.com/file/d/1r-N6N8KCIk1sJDxxxywIY5Zz7dIeRf81/view?usp=sharing

Information on HB 22 can be found here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1j6ZmNw7JHYZ3KoXzTwq-nU26SIQRUxeZ/view