September 2, 2021

Unable to get assistance: What happens to New Mexicans who speak lesser used languages

Unemployment office sign Flickr/cc

Kahleel Alkhalil, a 35-year-old Syrian refugee living in Albuquerque with his wife and eight children, has not been able to receive government relief he qualifies for because he speaks Arabic.

Alkhalil is one of thousands of New Mexicans who are eligible for pandemic relief who speak a language other than English or Spanish, said James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children. Because the nonnative speakers do not possess either English or Spanish skills, they are often unable to access government assistance they qualify for during the COVID-19 pandemic because state government documents and systems do not offer alternative language choices, Jimenez said.

A recent New Mexico Voices for Children report, Eligible but Excluded, said that federal law requires state agencies to provide “meaningful access” to people who speak languages other than English but many state agencies in New Mexico have no plans in place to improve language access. This makes breaking a system of economic hardship difficult and is inequitable, the report states.

Jimenez said exact numbers are not available but there are at least 15,000 people living in New Mexico who speak Vietnamese, a Chinese dialect such as Mandarin and Tagalog, a language spoken by Philippine people.

That doesn’t count various African languages and the blanket term “Asian” is so broad it covers everyone from Iran to Laos, Jimenez said.

Alkhalil told NM Political Report through an interpreter that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted his family “very hard.” His hours at a gas station were reduced because of the virus’ spread last year. He tried to get work as an Uber driver to supplement his income but with the pandemic, that income stream has been impacted, too, he said.

He said that his family has struggled to pay for both food and rent. He has tried to find other work but his lack of English has made that very hard as well.

“That [makes] it difficult to me to get work,” Alkhalil said through an interpreter.

He has tried to take English language classes that are offered free through a church in Albuquerque, but work has sometimes forced him to miss class.

“I attend some of these (English language) classes but I didn’t complete it because my priority is to go to…work to cover my expenses,” he said through an interpreter.

In addition, Alkhalil’s wife has diabetes, he said.

They are able to take care of most of their medical expenses through Medicaid but it doesn’t cover everything, so some of their medical bills are also out of pocket expenses, he said.

Alkhalil said his family got help one time from an organization designed to help low-income people but received it “just one time,” he said.

He said he has also struggled to provide clothes and shoes for his eight children since the pandemic began.

Jimenez said that sometimes the immigrants who are members of smaller demographics in New Mexico do not realize assistance is available even though they pay taxes. If they do receive assistance once, they are often unsure of how to receive additional assistance, such as Unemployment benefits, which require a weekly certification. Jimenez said another problem beyond the language barriers is that many of these immigrants lack technology at home, such as computers, which can further compound the problem.

Other issues the report cites include educational issues for the children of refugees whose parents were often unable to help them with remote learning last year. Many children dropped out of school to help with work because of the language barriers and the economic stress the families are in, according to the report.

Mental health access is another concern, the report states. The numbers of mental health professionals available to help the refugees was inadequate for the need, particularly during the pandemic, the report states.

The New Mexico Voices for Children report recommends that the state improve its language access to nonnative English speakers and to look beyond the expectation that a nonnative English speaker in New Mexico speaks Spanish or a Native tongue.

“Policy makers haven’t adjusted to the notion that the world is a much smaller place now,” Jimenez said. “It’s becoming a place substantially more diverse than it’s historically been. When you have a relatively small population of people, it can become all that more difficult for them to understand and engage in government structures that lift up their needs.”

The report also recommends that the state provide better funding support to nonprofits that can supplement the government’s efforts to be more language accessible.

A Kurdish refugee whose life was threatened for helping the U.S. Army in Iraq, Mohammed Aldawoodi, has been able to receive unemployment benefits during the pandemic, he said through an interpreter.

Aldawoodi, 40, speaks Kurdish and Arabic. He worked in the cab industry in Albuquerque but when the pandemic hit, he lost his job. He told New Mexico Political Report through an interpreter that he has sought government assistance in the form of Unemployment benefits but because he does not speak English, navigating the bureaucratic system has been difficult even though he is a U.S. citizen.

Aldawoodi said he has been able to apply and recertify every week only because of a nonprofit and a University of New Mexico-based organization have helped him.

Because of his language barrier, “I cannot manage many things,” Aldawoodi said through an interpreter.

Aldawoodi, who has a wife and a child, said he receives $169 a week in unemployment benefits. His benefits will run out at the end of this week, when federal assistance ends on September 4.

When asked what he will do when his benefits end, Aldawoodi said he does not know.

“I don’t have any plans,” he said.