January 22, 2022

Bill would require state departments to help those who don’t speak English

Laura Paskus

Advocates for New Mexicans who know little to no English say a bill passed by a committee Friday is needed help such residents access medical aid, child welfare services and other resources.

Lawmakers on the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs committee approved House Bill 22 on a 6-3 vote. It now heads to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

The legislation provides a one-time appropriation of $50,000 to the state Department of Finance and Administration. The money is aimed at helping state agencies assess whether they need to implement departmental language access plans to ensure people with limited English skills can access their services. 

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez, D-Albuquerque, one of the sponsors of the bill, said it will help ensure New Mexico complies with federal language-access laws. She said that when she asks state departments to provide a copy of their language-access plan, they always say they will give her one. 

“I have not received a single one,” Sedillo-Lopez said.

The committee heard from many people who spoke in favor of the bill, some of whom shared stories about challenges they or loved ones had faced in applying for state or federal programs in a language they did not understand. 

John Hoang told committee members that few people “understand the stress of being a first-generation Asian American child trying to navigate” governmental bureaucracy when seeking help with medical, educational and voting-rights services.

Asian American Rep. Kay Bounkeua, D-Albuquerque, said her mother often called herself stupid because she had a tough time communicating with state personnel who did “not understand her because of her heavy accent.”

She said if lawmakers do not find a way to deal with this challenge, “we as a state are failing a systematic need to really embrace New Mexico as a multicultural state.”

A New Mexico Voices for Children report from August 2021 says “New Mexicans who speak languages other than English, particularly immigrants and refugees, are excluded because of systemic inequities in language access. The inadequacy of our state’s multilingual interpretation and translation services causes significant hardship in many New Mexico communities because language access is critical for both good health and financial security.”

The problem stretches far beyond the borders of New Mexico. A 2020 National Library of Medicine report said language barriers “pose challenges” to patients who do not understand English when it comes to health care cost and quality. Hiring translators can be costly, the report says, though using Google Translate is of some help.

House Bill 22 does not lay out any specifics on how agencies should act — and the fiscal impact report for the bill points that out as an issue to be addressed. That report says the bill does not specify whether federal programs are included, though the bill’s sponsors said they are. 

It’s also unclear how many languages state agencies will have to deal with if the bill becomes law. Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, a member of the committee, said his research indicates 350 languages are spoken in the United States.

He said while he is not opposed to the concept of the bill, the scope should be narrowed to a set number of languages — “particularly when we talk about 350 different languages that the state may have to address.”

Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, also had issues with the bill, saying Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office could simply order those state agencies to comply with federal laws without the Legislature’s involvement. 

Nibert and Rehm joined Rep. Martin Zamora, R-Clovis, in voting against the bill, while all six Democrats on the committee voted for it.