It is Time for Federal Agencies to Do More to Improve the Provision of Language Access Services
The past several decades have brought tremendous growth in the number of individuals in the United States who report speaking English less than very well, causing them to be identified as Limited English Proficient (LEP) in U.S. census data. Their numbers have grown from approximately 11.6 million adults in 1990 to more than 22 million today. Nearly all of this growth has been driven by federal immigration and refugee resettlement policies.
As the number of immigrants and refugees has risen in recent decades, settlement in states and cities beyond the historic gateways has also expanded, causing many thousands of schools, hospitals, police forces, and other local government agencies to undertake efforts to bridge communication barriers with LEP clients and residents.
Whether driven by pragmatism, local laws, or federal civil-rights provisions, vastly different state and local governments and agency outposts wrestle with very similar challenges as they design and implement language access—i.e. translation and interpretation—services. These include basic planning questions, such as: which nodes of the agency interact with the public; what types of language demands are associated with these interactions (e.g. completion of forms, interviews with caseworkers, public hearings); and which languages, and at what frequency, require translation and interpretation? Not surprisingly, costs are also a key factor as services are designed, with many agencies struggling to balance their concerns for public health, safety, and equitable access with the razor-thin margins under which they often operate.
Recognizing the capacity challenges many state and local agencies face in implementing language access services, MPI’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy has sought to provide a variety of supports. These include compilation of data tools that provide statistics on LEP populations by state and for the nation, efforts that connect managers of these services with one another to share strategies and resources, and coordination of a range of skill-building opportunities for new as well as more seasoned practitioners.
Central to these efforts is our Language Portal, a searchable database we created in 2008 that contains a wealth of documents relevant to the provision of language access services, ranging from translated agency forms and brochures to research reports and state and local language access measures. We have recently completed a major update of documents available through the Language Portal—which now number 3,300—and reloaded it onto MPI’s website.
We are proud of the efforts we’ve been able to make in this arena and admire the work of the unit within the U.S. Department of Justice that supports compliance by state and local agencies that receive federal funds with federal regulations to provide language access services. However, our work with agencies at all levels of government leads us to conclude that federal agencies could do much more to support states and localities in meeting language access needs. In fact, early this year, numerous stakeholders—including our Center—recommended to the White House Task Force on New Americans that it address the need for greater federal leadership and action to meet language access challenges.
Though the Task Force has not yet taken on these issues, as it encourages local communities to do more to aid in immigrant integration through high-profile initiatives such as the recently launched Building Welcoming Communities Campaign, the chorus of those asking the federal government to do more to shore up this foundational service will no doubt grow. In theory the Task Force could quickly respond, given the ready list of issues around which it could be helpful to state and local governments. Among others, these include expanded research and development into technologies that can reduce translation and interpretation costs, federal agencies taking responsibility for translation of information about their programs into multiple languages, and new initiatives by the federal government to meet language access needs of speakers of low-incidence languages.
Many state and local governments and agencies are going to great lengths to meet language access needs created by federal immigration and refugee resettlement policies; federal agencies should act now and go to similar lengths in exploring all avenues at their disposal—both singly and collectively—to assist their state and local partners in meeting these needs.