State Failing to Listen to Languages – Sunday, April 28, 2002 – Published in The Concord Monitor
If you don’t speak English around here, you’re out of luck.
The face of New Hampshire is changing. Although little discussed, the 2000 census figures show more than 84,000 people in New Hampshire speak a language other than English at home. Almost 24,000 speak English less than very well. These are surprising numbers.
Particularly in the southern tier of our state, the demographic shifts are dramatic. Yet the subject of how well our New Hampshire institutions, public and private, are accommodating non-English speakers has received little attention.
Sadly, New Hampshire has done poorly both in recognition of language accessibility issues and in implementation of change. In practice, the state clings to a mythology that it is homogeneous and white only.
The state has not coordinated data-gathering about immigrants across agencies. Nor has it studied the need for translation services even though the population of non-English speakers is growing.
The harm is that people who lack proficiency in English are frequently unable to obtain basic knowledge of how to access various services and benefits for which they are eligible. Whether health care, social services or public benefits like Medicaid and unemployment insurance, the lack of language assistance leads to denial of help.
State agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Employment Security have largely failed to provide translated materials in Spanish or other languages. Application forms, notices and determinations are typically not translated. The lack of bilingual staff in state offices is a barrier to both applications and appeals.
Let me illustrate with a story. Mr. Chan worked as a cook at a Chinese restaurant in a southern New Hampshire city. He took an approved leave of absence to care for a newborn child. Upon his return to work, his employer advised him he no longer had a job.
Mr. Chan went to Employment Security to apply for unemployment benefits. Mr. Chan is Chinese and did not speak, read, or understand English. His employer told Employment Security that Mr. Chan had voluntarily left his job to accept other work. Employment Security tried to obtain more information, but Mr. Chan did not respond. The agency did not know he failed to respond to notices because he could not read English.
Mr. Chan was denied unemployment benefits. He did not make a timely appeal because he did not understand he had been denied. The notices from Employment Security were in English. He sought out a person who translated the notice, but the interpreter did not explain he had been denied.
When Mr. Chan finally understood he had been denied about two months later, he asked Employment Security to allow a late appeal. The agency refused, saying his grounds were insufficient. It did not explain.
At a loss about what to do, Mr. Chan sought legal help at Greater Boston Legal Services, where he found an attorney who spoke Chinese. That attorney contacted New Hampshire Legal Assistance.
As Mr. Chan’s counsel, I argued that his inability to understand the notice justified his late appeal and that the agency’s English-only notice violated his right to due process of law. Once Employment Security understood what had happened, it quickly agreed he should be allowed a hearing on the merits of the case.
At the hearing, a qualified interpreter came, and Mr. Chan was able to tell his side. The hearing officer found Mr. Chan was discharged while on an approved leave of absence. The decision meant over $2,000 in back benefits to Mr. Chan.
This story demonstrates both the importance of translated written materials and qualified interpreter services. New Hampshire’s need to provide such service is not based on some abstract moral good. The law requires it.
Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act requires that recipients of federal money serve people of limited English proficiency. There is extensive case law during the last 30 years supporting this proposition.
Contrary to possible expectation that language accessibility is a partisan political obligation, recent history demonstrates it is not. Both the Clinton White House and the Bush Department of Justice have supported guidance to federally funded agencies about how to comply with this legal obligation.
Certainly, there is room to disagree about the extent of the obligation. But the mandate is clear.
The United States remains the ultimate melting pot society. We are a nation of immigrants. New Hampshire is now catching up and joining the melting pot. By taking steps to be more language accessible, we are only acknowledging the changes that have already happened. We will also put ourselves on the right side of a civil rights issue. There is no going back to the good old days.