WASHINGTON — More than 25 million U.S. residents are Limited English Proficient (LEP), about 80 percent of them immigrants. Language barriers can pose significant obstacles to integration into American society as well as access to vital public services and institutions such as schools, health care, emergency responders and the legal system.

Federal law requires that all programs that receive federal funds, including those run by state and local agencies, take steps to ensure language access in their services (in other words find ways to bridge the communications barrier with those who cannot speak, understand, read or write English fluently). Although there is a basic right and framework for promoting accessible services under federal law, these provisions do not apply to local or state services that do not receive federal funds, and often suffer from a lack of accountability and enforcement mechanisms. As a result, many states and localities have created their own laws and policies to better foster and govern language access in their jurisdictions.

A new report from the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy analyzes the key elements of language access laws and policies across 40 states and localities. The study, A Framework for Language Access: Key Features of U.S. State and Local Language Access Laws and Policies, identifies the common elements and unique innovations adopted by state and local governments, both in terms of the duties assigned to agencies and departments and the systems and structures created to oversee, guide and enforce them.

The report’s authors, Jacob Hofstetter, Margie McHugh and Anna O’Toole, found numerous common provisions but also key areas of divergence in the responsibilities assigned to government agencies. Among them:

  • Document translation. Most language access laws and policies describe how agencies should determine the languages into which important public documents should be translated. In the District of Columbia, for example, agencies must translate vital documents into any language spoken by a population that constitutes 3 percent of the district’s residents or 500 individuals, whichever is less.
  • Interpretation services. All the laws and policies analyzed require the use of interpretation or bilingual staff for interactions between agency staff and LEP individuals seeking services. However, jurisdictions take different approaches to using bilingual staff to deliver services and regulating remote versus in-person interpretation. For example, under New York City’s law, agencies are required to retain vendor interpretation services in at least 100 languages.
  • Ensuring accuracy and training staff. Most state and local laws and policies reviewed contain features that seek to ensure the quality of the language services they require. For example, Hawaii’s law requires the state Language Access Resource Center to develop a process to test and certify translators and interpreters for agencies to use in carrying out their language access service obligations. Many laws and policies also set training requirements to ensure key agency staff and managers understand language access regulations and procedures.

While less common than provisions guiding agency responsibilities, many of the laws and policies studied also include particularly innovative features that seek to make language access services more durable and responsive through oversight and enforcement mechanisms. These include:

  • Assigning an office or entity to oversee agency efforts. Many state and local laws assign the responsibility of monitoring implementation, ensuring compliance, providing technical assistance and coordinating efforts across agencies on language access to specific offices, often those dedicated to immigrant affairs such as Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.
  • Mandating accountability mechanisms. Common mechanisms include regular updating of compliance plans, required reporting to the state legislature or city council and structured complaint procedures. In Chicago, for example, departmental language access coordinators are required to submit a compliance plan to the Mayor’s Office of New Americans that outlines progress made in the year prior and plans for the year ahead.
  • Tracking data on LEP populations and usage of services. To better understand the language assistance services that LEP individuals and communities are using, some laws and policies include specific requirements for data collection and reporting, for both agencies and oversight bodies. Common data collected includes the size of LEP populations, the use of agency services by LEP individuals and the frequency with which interpreters or translations are used by agency staff.

“By detailing the various ways state and local governments have sought to improve language access via laws and policies, this analysis illuminates key design elements decisionmakers must consider in order to craft comprehensive policies,” Hofstetter, McHugh and O’Toole write. “With linguistic diversity growing across the country, such insights will be vital for states and localities looking to create and effectively manage language access services.”

Read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/state-local-language-access-policies.  

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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. MPI’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy is a crossroads for elected officials, researchers, state and local agency managers, grassroots leaders, local service providers and others who seek to understand and respond to the challenges and opportunities today’s high rates of immigration create in local communities.