Bill would require NM departments to help non-English speakers

Jan. 22 – Advocates for New Mexicans who know little or no English say a bill passed by a committee on Friday is needed to help these residents access medical assistance, protective services from the childhood and other resources.

Lawmakers on the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee approved House Bill 22 by 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 Department of State Finance and Administration. The money is intended to help state agencies assess whether they should implement departmental language access plans to ensure people with limited English skills can access their services.

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

“I haven’t 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 of challenges they or loved ones had faced applying for state or federal programs in a language that they didn’t understand.

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

Asian-American Rep. Kay Bounkeua, D-Albuquerque, said her mother often called herself stupid because she had trouble communicating with state personnel who “didn’t understand her because of her strong accent”.

She said that if lawmakers don’t find a way to address this challenge, “we as a state are failing a systematic need to truly embrace New Mexico as a multicultural state.”

An August report by New Mexico Voices for Children states that “New Mexicans who speak languages ​​other than English, especially immigrants and refugees, are excluded due to systemic inequalities in language access. . Our state’s inadequacy of multilingual interpretation and translation services is causing significant hardship in many New Mexico communities because language access is essential for both good health and financial security. “

The problem extends well beyond the borders of New Mexico. A 2020 National Library of Medicine report said language barriers “pose challenges” for patients who don’t understand English when it comes to the cost and quality of healthcare. Hiring translators can be expensive, the report says, although using Google Translate is of some help.

House Bill 22 doesn’t go into specifics about how agencies should act — and the bill’s tax impact report highlights it as a problem that needs to be addressed. This report says the bill does not specify whether federal programs are included, although the bill’s sponsors have said they are.

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

He said that while he is not opposed to the concept of the bill, the scope should be narrowed down to a set number of languages ​​– “especially when we are talking about 350 different languages ​​that the state may have to deal with” .

Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, also had issues with the bill, saying Gov. Michell Lujan Grisham’s office could simply order these state agencies to comply with federal laws without the involvement of the government. Legislative Assembly.

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

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