Bill ensuring New Mexicans who speak languages other than English can access state services passes Legislature

SANTA FE—HB 22, a bill mandating state agencies create and implement plans for translation and interpretation services, awaits the governor’s signature. The bill passed the Senate unanimously today.

Sponsored by Representatives Kay Bounkeua, Patricia Roybal Caballero and Senators Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez and Mimi Stewart, House Bill 22: Limited English Access To State Programs requires all state agencies with secretaries to collect data on language use by families the agency serves and to develop and implement plans for ensuring meaningful access to state services through translation and interpretation.

“All New Mexicans deserve equal access to state services, regardless of the language they speak,” said Sachi Watase of the New Mexico Asian Family Center. “HB 22 will help to rectify state agencies’ current lack of adequate translation and interpretation.”

New Mexican families and community leaders have been seeking access to translation and interpretation at state agencies for over a decade. New Mexicans 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. 

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, currently have to divert limited resources in order to provide translation and interpretation services that are the state’s responsibility under federal and state law. 

“A plan is the critical first step so agencies can determine how to best provide the necessary translation and interpretation services that are required so New Mexicans can access state services,” said Verenice Peregrino Pompa, an attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “The bill will increase coordination among agencies by having the plans reported to the Legislative Finance Committee and the governor.”

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 typically only provides written documents in English and at times in Spanish and oral interpreters can be difficult to reach without additional help. 

On January 21, 2022 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. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are represented by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

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

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