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

ACTION ALERT: Support language access for state services!

All New Mexicans deserve equal access to state services, regardless of the language they speak.

New Mexico is home to thousands of people that primarily speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese and Diné and other languages. Despite being required by law, many agencies do not provide information and services in languages New Mexicans understand. Lack of language services has delayed or prevented New Mexicans from applying for unemployment insurance, food assistance, and Medicaid prior to and during the pandemic and deepened economic and health disparities in our communities. 

Senate Bill 368 will increase resources and services in languages other than English, ensuring that more New Mexicans can access state services. The bill will be heard in the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee FRIDAY a half hour after the Senate floor session. 

We need your help to get it passed! Please submit written comments today or sign up to speak and comment in the committee hearing.

You can share a personal story in your email about why state agencies should provide interpretation or translation. You can also say something like this: “I urge senators to support SB 368. All New Mexicans should have access to state services. Coordinating and planning language services is a common sense step to address health and economic inequities in our state services.”

Instructions on how to submit written comments and make public comments at the hearing are below. 

Bill summary

SB 368: Language Access Analysis, Plan, and Annual Report will increase language access by requiring state agencies to: 

  • Assess the number of New Mexicans they serve that primarily speak a language other than English and determine the resources needed to ensure meaningful access to services, like public benefits and unemployment insurance.
  • Develop and implement an annual plan to provide meaningful access to state programs for individuals who primarily speak languages other than English. 
  • Submit the annual report to the governor and the legislative finance committee.

Written comment instructions

  • Submit to SPAC@nmlegis.gov 
  • Written comments should be 300 words or less. 

Public comment (during hearing) instructions

When: 30 minutes after Senate floor session on Friday, March 12

Sign up to make public comment via this form:  https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSd6DQLFUzJjhBKz16R2F1jHrXTZN68hQ3_dMl0JAlGgl0kFzQ/viewform

You will be contacted by the committee’s Zoom operator who will give you instructions on how to access the public comment portion by Zoom.

What to expect during the hearing: The committee will be taking public comment. The chair of the committee will announce the bill and ask who supports SB 368. At that time, to provide a comment use the Zoom reaction button and raise your hand. The Chair will call your name and unmute your zoom when it is your turn to speak.

Tips 

  • Keep your remarks brief and to the point.
  • If you have a personal story about how state agencies’ lack of interpretation or translation services has impacted you or your family, please share it.
  • Close the Legislature’s webcast page when you give your comment so there is not an echo during your remarks.
  • Make sure you are not muted when you start speaking.
  • Do not rely on your computer or phone for notes. Write them down or print them in case your computer screen freezes.
  • Close other tabs and windows in your browser to make sure your connection is good.
  • If your connection or microphone doesn’t work, be prepared to call in with the information above.