Commentary: Many of New Mexico’s Asian/Pacific Islander and African immigrants and refugees are unable to access the assistance they are eligible for due to a pervasive lack of language access at state agencies. That’s one of the main points in a report released today by New Mexico Voices for Children. The conclusions in the report, Eligible but Excluded, are drawn from a series of in-person surveys and interviews conducted with the assistance of three immigrant- and refugee-serving organizations – the NM Asian Family Center, NM Black Leadership Council, and UNM’s United Voices for Newcomer Rights.
“Our communities are strongest when everyone has the opportunity to participate – particularly those families who find themselves in need of some assistance,” said James Jimenez, executive director of NM Voices. “While the pandemic has increased the need for programs like Unemployment Insurance, many New Mexicans who speak languages other than English had difficulty accessing them.”
This report is a follow up to Essential but Excluded, released last May, which focused on Latin American immigrants who had been left out of the federal stimulus payments. This new report is being released in advance of this Thursday’s Legislative Health and Human Services Committee hearing on language access issues.
Although state agencies are supposed to make reasonable efforts to provide access to forms and programs in languages other than English, the report finds that few are adequately doing so.
“Federal law requires the state to make their application forms available in other languages. Not only are they not doing that, but many have not produced the required plans for how they will make that happen,” said Mohammed Alkwaz with United Voices for Newcomer Rights.
Since the state does not guarantee language access, nonprofit organizations often end up serving as a lifeline for many immigrants and refugees. One of the report’s policy recommendations is that the state make grant funds available to those nonprofits so the services they are already offering can be expanded to fill more of the unmet need.
“It’s not enough to just help a family receive their benefits like Unemployment Insurance payments – something we do for many of them who lose their jobs due to the pandemic. But most programs also require people to periodically recertify that they are still eligible. So we spend a lot of time making sure that our families are up-to-date so they don’t lose their benefits,” said Mahbooba Pannah with NM Asian Family Center.
The report notes that for many immigrants and refugees, the lack of language access is only one of the barriers to acculturation. Many also find it difficult to navigate systems like public schools and some lack previous experience with computers and other technology.
“When we talk about immigrants and refugees in New Mexico, we rarely include African children and families. This report is a first, albeit small step in expanding the definition and description of refugees and immigrants in New Mexico. We must do more,” said Cathryn McGill with NM Black Leadership Council.
The full report is available online at https://www.nmvoices.org/archives/15665