Fifteen years later, a promise unfulfilled: services still lacking for the Limited English Proficient population

A map from the The Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice shows where in the U.S. the Limited English Proficient population resides.

Imagine being nine years old and having to fill out medical and legal documents for an adult.

Angie Tran, a college student in Oklahoma, remembers filling out and translating paperwork for her parents, who have limited knowledge of English, starting from when she was in elementary school. From having to interpret dental paperwork to sitting in on parent-teacher conferences, Angie had to learn and grow up fast to help her parents.

This is one example of what many Americans and immigrants encounter when they come to the United States, exposed to a language they don’t speak or understand. Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals often don’t have anywhere to go for help or do not know where to get the information they need in-language.

Fifteen years ago today, an executive order passed that promised language resources and access for all. In 2000, President Clinton issued Executive Order 13166, “Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency,” to require all federal agencies to identify and implement systems to help the Limited English Proficient community.

Despite this Executive Order, there are major gaps in language services that should be accessible to all Americans. This is evident at the polls, in schools and in accessing health care.

During every election, Asian Americans get turned away from the polls for not speaking English well, even though section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires that Limited English Proficient individuals in certain jurisdictions receive translated materials and get language assistance to help them fill out the ballot. The lack of knowledge of this section of the Voting Rights Act, coupled with the lack of translated resources, results in lower voter turnout for the Asian American community.

The needs of our communities are much greater than just translation and translated materials — resources must also be culturally competent. During the Affordable Care Act roll out, our communities encountered confusing translations, including idioms that made little sense in the translated language. Additionally, broader outreach initiatives were not catered enough to our communities to be effective. This lack of language access and cultural competency is a barrier to many Asian Americans.

The Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities are growing fast and will continue to grow. In the United States, 17.3 million of the population is Asian American and more than 1.2 million are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Our communities speak 33 Census-recognized languages and include more than 50 ethnic groups.

By 2050, the U.S. Census projects that the Asian American and NHPI population will reach 40 million, comprising nearly 10 percent of the U.S. population. Federal agencies can and must do better when it comes to serving Asian American and NHPI communities.

Here’s what the government has to do to fulfill their promise:

1. Create more access to interpreter services.

2. Work with community-based organizations and have them review translations for accuracy

3. Outreach to communities in-language through ethnic media and social media.

4. Ensure that LEP individuals can report complaints by providing translated complaint forms and access to interpreters during investigations and hearings.

5. Regularly update language access plans to include more languages, report on successes and identify areas for improvement, and hire high-level language coordinators in each agency.

It’s been 15 years since the federal government made their promise to help people like Angie and her family. It is time that the government stop just talking and fulfill their commitment in languages that everyone can understand.

Let’s work together to move forward so that our growing Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities get the resources they need to be able to thrive and contribute to our nation.

Learn more about Executive Order 13166 and language access needs for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in our issue brief.

The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA), founded in 1996, is a coalition of 35 national Asian Pacific American organizations. Based in Washington D.C., NCAPA serves to represent the interests of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AA & NHPI) communities and to provide a national voice on policy issues and priorities.