Gov. signs bill ensuring New Mexicans who speak languages other than English can access state services

SANTA FE—Today, after over a decade of work by families and community leaders seeking fair access to state agencies for New Mexicans who don’t speak English, the governor signed a bill mandating state agencies create and implement plans for translation and interpretation services. 

House Bill 22: Limited English Access To State Programs goes into effect July 2023.

“This law will ensure more New Mexicans their rights to public resources, alleviate small grassroots organizations of the burden of being a catch-all to fill gaps in accessible services, and give informed decision making power and agency back to New Mexicans,” said Sachi Watase of the New Mexico Asian Family Center. “Our communities have asked for equitable language access. Today, we are thrilled that our state is taking this step to honor the commitment and decades of work from my predecessors and ancestors, community-based organizations and advocates, our bill sponsors, legislators and public officials, essential workers who have witnessed the harm language barriers have caused first-hand, and of course, the generations of individuals, families, communities and allies across New Mexico who have worked tirelessly to lay the groundwork to help us get here today.”

Sponsored by Representatives Kay Bounkeua, Patricia Roybal Caballero and Senators Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez and Mimi Stewart, HB 22 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. 

“Our state’s cultures and languages are some of our greatest strengths,” said Verenice Peregrino Pompa, an attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “We thank the governor for demonstrating her commitment to racial justice by signing this bill into law. We also thank the bill’s sponsors and the NM Asian Family Center for leading this effort for fair access to state services for all New Mexicans regardless of the language they speak.”

The bill’s signing follows a February 25, 2022 federal court ruling reaffirming the New Mexico Human Services Department’s obligation to identify languages spoken by families trying to access food and medical assistance and to translate documents based on the demographics of those served by local agency offices. The court also ordered HSD to include information on the availability of language assistance services on Medicaid notices and to immediately fix its automated phone system to offer interpretation in multiple languages. 

The New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions entered into a settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor in 2020, requiring the agency to translate the application and other documents used in the unemployment system. 

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. 

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. 

The court order can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/language-access-order-hatten-gonzales-v-scrase-2022-03-01/

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

MEDIA ADVISORY

Court hearing FRIDAY: HSD must translate food stamp applications immediately, argue plaintiffs

ALBUQUERQUE—On Friday in a federal court, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty will argue that census data shows the New Mexico Human Services Department should begin translating food and medical assistance applications and notices into Vietnamese, Chinese, and Diné/Navajo immediately.

In January 2022, Judge Kenneth Gonzales ordered HSD 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. The ruling was on a motion filed by applicants for food and medical assistance, represented by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty in the Deborah Hatten Gonzales v. David Scrase lawsuit. 

Plaintiffs have provided census data showing that there are more than 100 low-income families that primarily speak Vietnamese, Chinese, and Diné/Navajo in areas served by a single office, which under federal law requires translation of the food and medical assistance application and other documents. Plaintiffs argue no further research is needed on these groups while HSD collects data on other non-English speaking populations in New Mexico.

For years advocates and community members have called for fair access to state services for New Mexicans who speak languages other than English. This last session the Legislature passed House Bill 22: Limited English Access To State Programs, which awaits the governor’s signature. If signed into law, it would require all state agencies with secretaries perform a language use analysis and develop an agency language access plan, similar to analysis required under federal food stamp regulations. 

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. 

WHAT: 

Hearing on language access motion in Deborah Hatten Gonzales v. David Scrase

WHO:

  • U.S. District Judge Kenneth J. Gonzales
  • Counsel for plaintiffs: Sovereign Hager, Verenice Peregrino Pompa, and Teague González of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and Daniel Yohalem, civil rights attorney
  • Counsel for HSD

WHEN: 

Friday, February 25, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

WHERE:

Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse, 4th Floor Chama Courtroom, 333 Lomas Avenue, Albuquerque 87102

*The hearing will take place in person. Masks are required in all federal courtrooms.

Judge Gonzales January, 2022 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 plaintiffs’ reply brief with census data can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/doc-1036-deborah-hatten-gonzales-reply-on-motion-for-clarification_nmclp_2022-02-18/

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