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Brennan Center Urges Department of Homeland Security to Clarify Language Assistance Obligations

Police, Detention Centers and other Government Agencies Need More Guidance in Serving Individuals with Limited English Speaking Skills

  • Laura Klein Abel
July 26, 2010

On July 16, 2010, the Brennan Center filed comments urging the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to instruct police departments to make 911 lines accessible to crime victims with limited English-speaking skills.

Together with thirteen immigrant advocacy and legal aid programs, the Center also pushed DHS to expand the use of outside interpreters for doctors visiting immigrant detention centers. In some instances, immigrants with limited English-speaking skills themselves have been called upon to translate the maladies of others, which can lead to misdiagnoses and other problems. The groups urged DHS to ban the practice.

The groups also recommended that DHS require DMVs to safeguard personal information by avoiding the use of family and friends to interpret for drivers license applicants

Our comments respond to a set of guidelines DHS has proposed to provide to the many government agencies, nonprofits and businesses receiving DHS funding. Since its establishment in early 2003, DHS has distributed billions of dollars in grants to hundreds of state and local governments, as well as corporations and non-profit organizations. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act requires these funding recipients to use interpretation and translation in order to communicate with the LEP individuals they serve. With its proposed guidelines, DHS is for the first time making a serious effort to ensure that its funding recipients do in fact provide this language assistance.

Unfortunately, DHS’ guidelines are vague. They do not identify the specific language access obligations of specific types of agencies. Our comments urge DHS to provide clear guidance regarding the language assistance obligations of the state and local law enforcement agencies, prisons, emergency/disaster management agencies and motor vehicle departments that receive DHS funding. With this sort of clear, easy to follow guidance, DHS can help state and local government agencies communicate with the communities they serve