Language Access: Advocating for our rights, reclaiming our dignity

Katrina Pestano March 21, 2017 0

“You broke the ocean in half to be here. Only to meet nothing that wants you.”

—Nayirrah Waheed

We are living in times where immigrants in the United States are being openly targeted in every sphere of our existence. Most of us do not feel safe in the streets, at work, in schools, and especially when traveling.

While at the API Chaya Healing Gathering on March 4, we received news that a Sikh man was shot in Kent and told to “go back to your country.” This man was not even safe in his own driveway. Just last month, a survivor seeking a protection order in a courthouse in Texas was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, after being reported by her abuser. A few days before, Daniel Ramirez Medina, a 23-year-old immigrant in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, was arrested in Seattle as part of mass deportation raids happening under Trump’s administration.

Nationwide, we continue to fight Islamophobic policies, such as the “Muslim Ban” with the recently revised Executive Order blocking citizens from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.

These incidents have instilled deep fears in our communities, which have long been fighting for our basic rights and dignity. At API Chaya, a community-based organization serving mostly immigrant survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, we are growing our survivor services and community organizing programs to be more responsive to the intensifying needs of the people we serve. Many program participants face multiple barriers to accessing services, as well as finding pathways to healing and justice.

In addition to developing community responses to violence, we are also expanding our work around language access. Last year, we collaborated with Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence (APIGBV) and Martha Cohen of the Office of Interpreters Services (King County Superior Court) to bring a training for anti-violence advocates and social service providers on improving language access practices.

We are also gathering stories from program participants and community members who have been delayed and/or denied services as a result of their request for interpretation, even though most agencies are legally required to provide interpreters for all of their programs. As a result, our multi-lingual advocates are often used as interpreters as they are advocating, which is additional work for them and puts undue burden on our agency. Furthermore, it can mean that people just simply cannot access the services they are entitled to as survivors and community members.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 2000d, et seq. states: “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Thus, any and all programs that receive federal assistance are required to ensure that everyone can utilize them. In order to adequately accomplish this, individuals who are limited English speakers must be provided real access to federally-funded programs through the use of interpretation services. As one can imagine, being able to access vital benefits, while also understanding your rights and responsibilities, is directly dependent on whether you can understand what is being explained to you. Therefore, it is extremely important that those who do not speak English as their primary language are included in and given access to federally-funded programs through appropriate language services.

Having an advocate to help navigate services such as school, housing, medical and social services, and our legal systems, can literally save someone’s life. More often than not, the people we are serving are not given adequate interpretation services, which has led to dire consequences—including more violence, houselessness, medical procedures that do more harm than good, and even going to jail as victim-defendants. This has long been an issue for immigrant survivors, but we are anticipating that these incidents will happen more frequently and with increased severity as anti-immigrant sentiments are heightening.

Listening to our advocates’ experiences reminds me of my own; as a young person who my mother looked to for my language skills, as I often served as interpreter for us. Navigating social services with my family was the first place I learned how to advocate, at a young age and on my own.

One time, my mother was being fired unjustly at a job she had been working for years. She felt that she could not adequately defend herself, and had me write a letter explaining her perspective. I was young and did not have sufficient tools and knowledge to keep my mother from being fired, but even then, I knew she was being discriminated against as an immigrant woman. Had my mother been made aware of her rights as a worker, this could have ended differently. this particular experience has stayed with me, informing the kind of advocate and organizer I am today.

This year, we are excited to join the Fair Work Collaborative, a partnership between 11 community organizations convened by the Fair Work Center, to ensure that survivors, English language learners, low-wage workers, people with disabilities, and workers in prison understand their rights as workers under Seattle’s labor standard.

Many children of immigrants play this role for our parents, and many of us lack understanding of how to navigate discriminatory practices, especially within systems that are supposed to be providing us support.

I grew up seeing the ways that people respond to non-native English speakers. I can tell from their dismissiveness, skepticism, and even pity that they see us and other immigrants as undeserving of basic respect and dignity. Ensuring that interpretation services are made available is not doing us a favor—it is our right. A right that government employees and service providers must uphold—not only morally, but also legally. More than that, social service providers must understand that with a survivor who needs access to services, it is easy to further perpetuate power and control by not honoring their humanity and acknowledging they are coming from a place of trauma. As providers, it is important to leverage our power to reduce barriers for those seeking services.

Providing an interpreter not only helps by translating exchanges and conversations, but in making a person feel more comfortable, connected and safe. Language carries so much—our values, traditions, and memories. This is why we will be expanding our Natural Helpers program to include multilingual community members who are trained on language access needs. We know we need to build power and skills in our communities to meet the great needs. These Natural Helpers will be able to provide support by helping us reach out to more immigrant communities, and even work with advocates to assist survivors in various ways, such as becoming more familiar with public transportation or accompanying them to medical appointments. We envision this growing into an intergenerational cohort that will deepen our capacity as an organization and build up support networks, allowing us to care for each other and create more safety in our communities.

We invite you to learn more about our community organizing programs by coming to our monthly Community Education Series, every fourth Wednesday of the month. The next one will be on March 22 at the Beacon United Methodist Church. For more information and updates, visit our Facebook page at

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