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Language Access In The US: What You Need to Know

Updated: Jul 5

In the United States, millions of people do not speak English. What do they do when they need to attend an immigration hearing or visit the doctor? This is where language access comes in.

Over 20% of US population speaks a language other than English

Language access is an integral part of maintaining equal rights and opportunities for all individuals in the U.S., regardless of their language proficiency. And it’s not just a matter of convenience--it’s a fundamental right.

In today’s blog, we’ll discuss language access laws, which organizations are expected to comply with these laws, and how they can do so. With a focus on languages of lower diffusion, we’ll also explore the role, current state, and importance of language access in the U.S.

What is language access?

Under U.S. law, all government agencies and organizations that receive public funding (of any amount) are required to provide language services for individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP's). 

Language access consists of providing interpretation and translation services in a variety of contexts, including healthcare, education, and legal affairs. Providing these services for LEP's is mandated by federal law and executive orders. All federal agencies, including state and local agencies, must comply. Moreover, these regulations apply to all non-citizens in the US, regardless of their immigration status.

Language access makes it possible for LEP individuals to take part in immigration procedures in their primary language. It also helps them access healthcare, education, and other essential services. 

The ultimate goal of language access services is to make sure that everyone receives equal treatment, regardless of their language or cultural background.

Language Access Laws In The US

The first language access law was created in 1964. Several laws, executive orders, and federal guidelines have been enacted since then to improve language access. The following are the most significant:

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination against race, color, and national origin from organizations receiving federal funding. This federal law also mandates that those organizations must provide language assistance, such as oral interpretation and written translation for LEP's.

Title VI

Executive Order 13166

EO 13166 reinforces Title VI provisions for organizations and agencies receiving federal funds to provide language services for LEP's. It requires all federal agencies to develop and implement a system to make their programs and activities accessible for these individuals. 

This order also mandates that any entities receiving federal funding must establish language access plans, provide public notice of the new language services they offer, and ensure that their staff is appropriately trained on language access.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA)

The ACA helps ensure that LEP's can access healthcare equally and discrimination-free. Under Section 1557 of the ACA, healthcare entities and providers are prohibited from refusing service to anyone based on their ethnicity, age, racial background, gender, physical disabilities, or national origin. 

ACA language access requirements include providing qualified interpreters and translated materials in multiple languages. Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act mandates that these organizations post language assistance notices in English and in the 15 most common languages spoken by LEP individuals in the states they operate in.

Several states and municipalities have implemented their own language access legislation. In some areas, Title VI and EO13166 are heavily reinforced, whereas others include more guidelines about language access planning and implementation.

Some of the states with the best language access plans are New Mexico, Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Some of the states with the best language access plans are New Mexico, Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
An interactive map from NJAC shows which states in the US have the strongest score for language access.

Current State Of Language Access In The US

In recent years, language access has become more of a priority, and several initiatives have been carried out to improve access to language services in government services. Despite this, there's still a lot of room for improvement, particularly in healthcare, and especially for indigenous languages and other languages of lower diffusion.

While language access services are mandated by federal laws like Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, compliance varies greatly among healthcare organizations. Unfortunately, many lack the resources and framework to offer language services comprehensively.

Efforts have been made to improve language access, particularly by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), such as implementing real-time translation technology and updating language access plans, but there are still many challenges to overcome. Limited funding, a shortage of trained language professionals, and integrating language services into day-to-day operations are some of the most common obstacles.

Due to a number of obstacles, language access for Mayan and other Latin American indigenous language speakers is particularly poor. However, we want to highlight that several local governments and advocacy groups have been working hard to improve language access for for those communities, and some major milestones have been reached, including the the creation of the DHS Indigenous Languages Plan earlier this year.

These efforts, however, are still in their infancy. With insufficient funds, limited resources for the training and qualification of indigenous language interpreters, and a general lack of awareness about these issues, providing language services for Mayan and other Latin American indigenous language speakers continues to be a challenge. 

Improving language access may seem trivial in comparison to issues like U.S. immigration reform and border management, but it cannot be ignored. In reality, there’s a lot to gain from having more language access. Through language access services, non-English speakers can better understand complex processes like immigration. It helps them to make more informed decisions and prevents miscommunication, delays, and extensive backlogs in the immigration system. 

Language access at the border and in courtrooms

At the border, Border Patrol agents must identify the language of individuals who arrive and are not able to communicate in English. Agents use the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s "I speak" poster when they are not able to easily identify a language. Once the agent has done so, they contact a contracted interpreter for assistance by phone or in person (if a staff interpreter is available). The problem with this method for speakers of indigenous languages is that many of these languages suffer from extremely low literacy rates, meaning that the individuals may not be able to effectively utilize this type of method. Additionally, no Latin American indigenous languages are listed on the poster.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has jurisdiction over language access for immigration courts and the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR). To assist LEP individuals, EOIR provides both telephonic and in-person interpreters. As part of the preparation for immigration court hearings, judges and their staff must determine the individual’s primary language and provide them with the appropriate language access services. 

For asylum seekers, language access is determined by the application type. In defensive asylum claims, migrants receive services directly from EOIR. In affirmative asylum claims, applicants must arrange for their own interpreters. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) provides interpreters for credible fear interviews, reasonable fear interviews, and safe third-country screening interviews.

Who needs to have a language access plan?

Any entity that receives federal funding of any amount is required to have a language access plan.

This includes:

  • State, local, and tribal governments

  • State and local courts, legal services offices, and agencies that receive federal funding

  • Federal agencies

  • Police departments

  • Schools that receive federal funding

  • Any nonprofit or business that receives federal funding

  • Hospitals and healthcare providers that receive federal funding

  • Social service programs that receive federal funding

  • Financial institutions

Developing a language access plan

To meet the needs of LEP individuals, a language access plan should include:

  • Assessment of Language Needs: To determine which languages are spoken by the population served and what language services are needed.

  • Provision of Services: To describe how language assistance will be provided, including translations and interpreters.

  • Staff Training: To train staff on language access policies and how to utilize interpreters and translated materials effectively.

  • Notice of Language Services: To provide public notices and communications that inform the public about the availability of language services.

  • Monitoring and Evaluation: To regularly review the language access plan's performance and modify it as necessary.

  • Funding and Resources: To provide sufficient funding and resources for language access services.

Challenges and barriers to language access for indigenous language speakers

The number of indigenous migrants from Guatemala arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border increased so much between 2018 and 2019 that Mayan languages like K'iche', Q'eqchi' and Mam entered the top 15 languages used in court proceedings.

In spite of this growing demand, there has been a lack of focus from key players in the industry on addressing services for these languages. This comes partially from a lack of expertise, as well as lackluster efforts to find, train, and mobilize speakers of Latin American indigenous languages.

There is currently also an epidemic of unawareness within nearly every sector, especially healthcare, on how to effectively provide language services for speakers of Latin American indigenous languages. Similar to an LEP, most speakers of Latin American indigenous languages should be considered 'Limited Spanish Proficient', meaning that they have some proficiency in Spanish, but not sufficient to be able to effectively communicate and understand. Currently, providers who encounter these "LSP's", tend to try and muddle through the appointment with Spanish, either because they don't believe they will be able to find a resource, or because they don't know where to start looking.

Another challenge is that many language service providers or community development organizations who offer indigenous languages are not properly equipped to do so. These organizations often lack the proper infrastructure and sufficient resources to be able to keep up with the nationwide demand.

Maya Bridge - A Leading Advocate For Latin American Indigenous Language Access In The U.S.

Since 2021, Maya Bridge Language Services has been advocating for increased access for Mayan and other Latin American indigenous languages. Maya Bridge is a mission-driven, niche interpretation agency offering 24/7 on-demand services for over 60 Indigenous languages from Latin America. We have worked diligently to mobilize, train, and evaluate a network of hundreds of interpreters both in the US and in Latin America.

Unlike other agencies, we are actually able to assess our interpreters’ language proficiency and interpretation ability. Serving clients in all fields, in both public and private sectors, we work tirelessly to ensure that indigenous communities all over the US are able to understand and be understood, wherever they are. Our core values are improving Indigenous language access in the U.S. and giving back to the communities we serve. 

Contact us to schedule a meeting or call us anytime, day or night, at (801) 753-8568. 

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