This month, the Attorney General instructed the head of every executive agency to take immediate action to ensure that the agency is able to communicate with the people it serves, regardless of English language ability. While this move has been overshadowed by the justifiably loud celebration of the Justice Department’s decision to stop defending the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, it promises to have an equally profound effect on civil rights.
In order to serve its customers, the federal government must be able to communicate with them. As the Attorney General wrote, “[e]vents such as the H1N1 influenza pandemic, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Gulf oil spill, and the 2010 Decennial Census highlight the need for federal agencies to ensure language access.”
Miscommunication can lead to tragedies. Human rights groups have documented instances of immigrants unable to communicate their need for health care, food or other assistance to staff at the detention centers run by the Department of Homeland Security. Domestic violence victims have been unable to inform law enforcement officers of their need for protection. Parents have been unable to obtain Food Stamps or healthcare for their children.
A year ago, on behalf of the National Language Access Advocates Network, the Brennan Center warned the Justice Department about these problems, describing the failure of many federal agencies to comply with their language access obligations. As we had recommended, the Attorney General’s recent letter to the executive agencies instructs each to develop or update a plan for ensuring that the agency’s own employees are able to communicate with the limited English proficient people they encounter. And, it reminds each of its obligation to provide language assistance guidance to all non-profits, state and local governments, and businesses it funds. Most importantly, the letter warns that DOJ will monitor whether federal agencies are fulfilling their language access obligations.
Without interpreters, all too often federal agencies cannot communicate with the people they serve. Without monitoring, all too often the Justice Department’s warnings are just empty words. The Attorney General’s letter promises improvement on both fronts.