As our limited- and non-English (LEP/NEP) speaking population grows, DC government fails to keep up

I recently heard a story from a local advocate about a woman seeking to work in a salon in DC. The woman was working to comply with local regulations and secure appropriate licensure, but none of the DC agencies she was required to interface with could provide her with the language assistance she needed. The process was confusing and cumbersome, and like many of us, the woman was unable to navigate it without assistance from her government. But her government did not provide her with the assistance she needed. Three months later, the local advocate ran into this woman again. She was at a church, eating a free meal. Having been unable to secure approval to work in the salon, the woman was homeless.

When I heard this story, it broke my heart. And, this woman is not alone. According to the most recent Census data, over a quarter of DC-area homes speak a language other than English as the primary language in their home, a number that is well above the national average. Yet, as this number grows, our city services have failed to keep pace.

The DC Language Access Act was introduced in 2004, and passed over ten years ago. Since that time, immigrants have made up approximately one third of DC’s population growth. Our city’s immigrant communities and limited- or non-English proficient (LEP/NEP) speakers are deserving of, and indeed entitled to, government services, yet our Council has not prioritized much-needed reforms. Although legislation that would strengthen the law and ensure that it actually achieves its goals has been introduced on multiple occasions since 2014, the DC Council has failed to act, leaving vulnerable members of our community without access to critical services. 

At present, a limited or non-English speaking DC resident could still struggle to receive comprehensive language assistance at critical government agencies. According to the most recent compliance report issued by the DC Office on Human Rights, places like the Department of Health, the Department of Housing and Community Development, the Metropolitan Police Department, the Office of Contracting and Procurement, and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education fell short in meeting the preparedness, accessibility, and quality standards required to serve the needs of our LEP/NEP populations. Further, in speaking with members of the legal services community, it’s also clear that improvement is needed at agencies such as the Department of Motor Vehicles, the District Department of Transportation, the Office of Tax and Revenue, the Department on Disability Services, and the Office of the Tenant Advocate, to name a few.

Moreover, if a DC resident is victim to a violation of our local DC language access law, there is little recourse. The complaint process under the DC Language Access Act is not working, and although legislation has been introduced to fix it, the Council has failed to act.

The Office on Human Rights, and the stakeholders they work with, have over a decade of demonstrated commitment to supporting District agencies via technical assistance, compliance, and enforcement, but the demand for services exceeds what is currently available. 

These agencies and departments can be difficult to navigate for any of us, so imagine the strain on a LEP/NEP speaker seeing access to critical city services. With over ten percent of DC residents potentially facing these language hurdles on a given day, there is no excuse for this not being prioritized by the DC Council. The Council has not even taken steps to require itself to provide comprehensive language assistance to constituents.

Half of my family is Mexican-American. Growing up in southern California and regularly visiting Spanish-speaking family members in Arizona meant that I learned to speak Spanish alongside English. I am so grateful to have grown up in a culturally-rich family, and it has served me well not only as a way to communicate with family but as a way to communicate with fellow residents in DC. Whether I’m renewing my license or registration at the DMV or picking up a permit at DCRA, each time I seek services at a DC agency I inevitably encounter a Spanish-speaker who needs assistance or instruction in Spanish. While I am always happy to assist, our neighbors’ ability to access critical city services should never be contingent on a chance encounter with a fellow resident who speaks their native language. The law clearly states that they should be provided with oral interpretation services by their government.

There are very real and dangerous consequences when we fail to provide comprehensive language assistance across all of our city services, and these consequences invariably impact the most vulnerable populations in our city. Non-English speakers are less likely to report instances of domestic violence in their homes because of the language barrier between themselves and MPD officers responding to calls for help. I have spoken to advocates and legal assistance providers who have shared stories about MPD mistakenly arresting the victim of a crime, rather than the perpetrator, due to confusion created by a language barrier the arresting officers were unable to overcome.

There do appear to be one or two members of the DC Council who understand the importance of these issues, and the impact they have on residents, families and communities. Unfortunately, the Council as a whole has not been receptive to, or perhaps even understanding of, these concerns. Under current law, one person is charged with handling language access for more than 100 public schools in the District, and another is in charge of handling language access for more than 100 charter schools in the District. There is no requirement that either of these individuals work full-time on language access issues. This has led to a failure on the part of our schools to effectively provide critical information to students and parents. Over the course of nearly four years, legislation has been repeatedly introduced to add additional language access coordinators to serve public and charter schools, but the Council continues to ignore the call for these important improvements to the law. With each passing day, this inattention causes irreparable harm on our city’s children, neighbors, families and communities.

We can do better, just as progressive cities throughout the country already have. New York has an entire Translation and Interpretation Unit integrated into their Department of Education, dedicated to identifying and addressing language barriers in schools. San Francisco offers translation services in over one hundred languages for all web-facing content, including their law enforcement and judicial web pages, and provides additional services by phone and in-person as needed. There is nothing stopping DC from implementing these same services and requiring additional language training and services be made available across our police department, agencies, schools, and court system. It’s an investment that will make city services more accessible for many of our neighbors who need them most.

We should also build on what we know works.  The Office on Human Rights should be commended for its commitment to supporting District agencies serving LEP/NEP communities. At a time when upwards of 30,000 El Salvadorans living in our community are stripped of their Temporary Protected Status (TPS), ensuring that we are conducting significant proactive outreach to vulnerable populations is becoming increasingly critical. As such, if elected to serve on the DC Council, I would work to:

  • Pass the Language Access for Education Amendment Act to improve language access in our schools and to give teeth to the complaint process under the Language Access Act;
  • Ensure that OHR has the robust funding necessary to ramp up training, technical assistance, compliance and enforcement efforts, as well as bringing on additional Language Access Coordinators;
  • Fund the expansion of existing “Know Your Rights” presentations and outreach efforts conducted by OHR and partners like Many Languages One Voice (MLOV) under the DC Language Access Coalition;
  • Fund the expansion of existing programs, such as Ayuda’s Community Legal Interpreter Bank and Victim Services Interpreter Bank, dedicated to providing language access services to nonprofits throughout the city;
  • Establish initiatives for hiring preferences in place for bilingual candidates applying to positions in the DC government that are likely to interact with LEP/NEP community members;
  • Create programs devoted to ensuring that interpreter training is available at low or no cost to bilingual individuals who want to become professional interpreters, thereby strengthening the pool of interpreters in DC and creating jobs; and
  • Require that all DC Council offices and staff are trained and equipped to serve our LEP/NEP community.

Providing language assistance services to everyone in our community, across all of our city services, is not a difficult task. It’s one that requires a commitment from our DC Council to understand the needs of our city’s LEP/NEP community.  Unfortunately, it’s a commitment that we have yet to see. We owe it to our neighbors to do better.