Limited-English-Proficient Clients Face Daunting Challenges Even with Broad Legal Protections

LanguagesMercedes Cruz, a Spanish-speaking mother of three in New York City, depends on public assistance benefits for survival. But ever since Ms. Cruz opened her public assistance case in 2007, her public assistance office has failed to provide her with a Spanish interpreter at her appointments. Her repeated requests for a Spanish-speaking caseworker have also been denied. Additionally, the office has frequently mailed Ms. Cruz important documents in English. Because Ms. Cruz could not understand the documents, she missed multiple deadlines – nearly resulting in the closure of her public assistance case. 

Ms. Cruz is now a plaintiff in a pending lawsuit brought by Legal Services NYC seeking proper enforcement of The Equal Access to Human Services Act of 2003 (Local Law 73). Local Law 73 is a New York City law requiring the city’s Human Resources Administration centers, which administer public assistance, food stamps, and Medicaid benefits in New York City, to provide limited-English-proficient (LEP) clients with translation and interpretation services. On paper, New York City’s LEP residents should be receiving adequate translation and interpretation services whenever they encounter city agencies. Not only are LEP New Yorkers protected by Local Law 73, but in July 2008 Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed Executive Order 120, which requires all city agencies providing direct public services to ensure that LEP clients receive appropriate translation and interpretation services. Executive Order 120 also requires city agencies to develop and implement language access policies. 

Despite all of these legal protections, advocates continue to find that New York City’s LEP residents are being denied language assistance when they seek access to housing, health care, and public benefits. Accordingly, in August 2009 Legal Services NYC filed its lawsuit in state court on behalf of Ms. Cruz, and five other individual plaintiffs. In December 2009 Legal Services NYC added six more plaintiffs to its case, including MinKwon Center for Community Action, a Flushing-based group advocating on behalf of Korean Americans. Legal Services NYC now anticipates that depositions will begin in January 2011.

Ms. Cruz’s story is very familiar to attorneys and advocates who work with low-income LEP clients. Low-income LEP clients face challenges at every turn, even though Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids discrimination on the basis of individuals’ national origin – which includes the languages they speak. Accordingly, Title VI requires programs that receive federal assistance to provide LEP individuals with appropriate language access services. These services can include interpretation at meetings and court appearances as well as the translation of relevant documents. 

Any entity that receives federal funding, either directly or indirectly, is subject to Title VI, including the prohibition on discrimination on the basis of national origin. As a recent New York Times article discussed, police departments are subject to Title VI if they receive federal grant money. Two other groups of programs subject to the requirements of Title VI are state and county court systems and legal aid offices that receive federal funding. In December 2004 the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) published a helpful guidance document outlining LSC programs’ obligations toward their LEP clients. The May-June 2010 issue of Clearinghouse Review: Journal of Law and Policy contains three articles examining language access issues that are essential reading for legal aid attorneys or any practitioner representing LEP clients. In “Language Access in State Courts,” Laura K. Abel explains why Title VI obligates state and county courts to provide competent language access services to litigants, as well as how state and county court personnel can meet the requirements of Title VI. Abel also provides practical guidelines for court interpreter programs and suggestions for how advocates can improve state and county courts for their LEP clients.

Also in the May-June 2010 issue, Michael Mulé’s “Language Access 101” is a valuable resource for any legal aid attorney struggling with how to effectively and ethically represent LEP clients. Mulé outlines the responsibilities that legal aid attorneys have towards their LEP clients and provides pragmatic approaches for how they can assess the size and needs of their LEP populations. Lastly, in “How Effective Is Machine Translation of Legal Information?” Mulé and Claudia Johnson scrutinize one frequently-discussed solution to the problems faced by LEP clients: machine-translation. Their nuanced discussion of these services’ strengths and limitations suggests that for LEP clients such as Mercedes Cruz, progress towards full compliance with Title VI depends on the cultivation and pooling of language resources rather than a dependence on machine translation.


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Wil - December 7, 2010 1:54 PM

Great overview of the language access legal issues taking place in New York City. More immigrants have to be aware of Executive Order 120 and their right to receive information in their language.

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