The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated language justice barriers in health care, access to vital benefits and access to legal support. A ProPublica investigation found that at the height of New York’s COVID-19 outbreak, non-English speakers were getting delayed and worse care. On Wednesday, June 3, 2020 the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division hosted a webinar about “Language Justice During COVID-19,” in which language access experts explained how this disaster has heightened language access problems and how state and local governments, courts, and legal service providers should respond to the current crisis and work towards a just recovery.

We can learn a lot about key language access barriers from past natural disasters, according to Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz, the Pro Bono & Strategic Initiatives Manager at Pro Bono Net. Disasters already provide unique legal challenges in housing, employment, family law and other issues. Language barriers make these problems so much harder to solve and keep people who are not proficient in English from getting the resources they need. Key problems in disaster response range from English-only alerts, signage and warnings to government agencies sending disaster survivors determination letters in English only.

Another issue Ortiz-Ortiz identified is the proliferation of inaccurate legal translations—often the work of machine translation (such as Google Translate) or untrained translators. For example, a form can require  an applicant to provide general background information on the issue and the translation reads“antecedentes,” which in some Spanish dialects and depending on the context, the word can refer to “criminal records” or “criminal background. . Ortiz-Ortiz and the other panelists stressed that good translation, executed by trained translators, is essential for language access and justice, and that a lot gets lost when courts, governments and other public services use inconsistent machine translators like Google Translate.

At the same time, innovative legal technologies and online systems are important tools to provide remote language access. These include hot-lines, live help chats, and self-help resources such as form generators (including Pro Bono Net’s Law Help Interactive) that ask people simply phrased questions in their own language and produce legal documents with their answers.

Alena Uliasz, the Language Justice Manager at California Rural Legal Assistance, emphasized that the 25 million Americans (8 percent of the US population) who are not proficient in English face a dramatic pattern of disadvantage. Those who aren’t proficient in English experience poverty at twice the rate of the population at large and close to half of adults with limited English do not have a high school diploma. In addition, immigrants who speak limited English are more likely to have poor health than immigrants who speak English proficiently. During the COVID-19 crisis, limited tech access has already kept non-English speakers at a disadvantage.

Joann Lee, Special Counsel on Language Justice at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA), highlighted key language justice barriers during COVID-19 and how governments and legal service providers have overcome them. Lee stressed that during the crisis, much of the burden for translating government documents has fallen on community organizations and legal aid organizations. She stressed that state and local governments should partner with and fund community organizations to help translate vital information and documents and provide broader access to translators and to ensure that those without English-proficiency are able to access help. 

LAFLA and other organizations have drafted language rights advocacy letters that call for courts, unemployment offices, health providers and other essential services to do more on language access to comply with legal mandates and meet their local populations language needs. One community organization filling a language access void is The Korean American Federation of Los Angeles, which has used its YouTube channel to guide Korean-speakers through benefit applications and provided other vital information.

As Lee emphasized, some state governments stand out in their work towards broader language access. Washington State’s language access plan commits to providing COVID-19 updates in the 37 most popular languages in the state. California provided aid to immigrants who were not eligible for federal unemployment and stimulus checks and contracted with 12 nonprofits to administer the program—the program’s FAQ’s is available in 17 languages. Hawaii’s court system and office of legal access has translated important information into several languages.

Overall, the language justice advocates agreed: state and local governments should use professional interpreters instead of Google Translate, and partner with community organizations and legal aid providers to make updates, benefits, and other vital information and services accessible to those with limited English proficiency.