“The Language Access Act Through the Eyes of a Virginian Latino” by Geraldine Govea

Throughout my time as an intern with the Office on Latino Affairs, I have learned about the Language Access Act that was instituted in the District of Columbia in 2004. Reading about this act as a Virginian who had never heard about it, I realized that DC was taking big steps in the process of assimilation and acceptance for the immigrant population in the District. I found out that DC had numerous offices that dealt with the biggest barrier in communication felt by the country – the language barrier. As a result, the Act permits LEP(Limited English Proficient) speakers to receive information and services provided by the government in their own language. The Office on Latino Affairs, specifically the Language Access Department, is in charge of monitoring the implementation of the Act by the 34 agencies under Language Access. I was amazed to find that so many people had this benefit right at their hands and that they had the legal system finally back them up through the demonstration of a little blue card that reads “ I speak (language). I need assistance in my language”. Coming from a Hispanic family I have been used to, from a very young age, translating bills, notices, and important paperwork as well as answering phone calls for my parents; I have now pretty much taken it on as a personal responsibility. Looking back, I sometimes feel that my family has been taken advantage of because of this language barrier and I think of how much I would have liked it if my parents were able to receive these services in their language just by showing an “I speak” card.

In Virginia, translation services are not an obligation for an agency. Agencies carry translated documents or have interpreters only if they pay extra for those services, and even then, the translations are not correct or the interpreter is not always accessible. Health services do a better job at serving the public with information in their language but even then, not all languages are covered and not all information is given. What tends to happen in Virginia is that agencies use their bilingual staff to do the translation and interpretation services for them rather than having these documents readily available to hand out to the people. In the end, the only thing that this brings is disorganization and chaos within the agency and to the public.

Working with the Language Access Department and being able to compare DC and Virginia’s approach to Language Access, I can say that DC has invested much more effort in the idea of equal opportunity to all people. It disappoints me to see that access is limited and that people like my parents will have to move to DC in order to attain these services. To me it seems that Virginia’s “English only” movement is more predominant than the “English plus” movement, thus restraining access for all immigrants residing in Virginia. I only hope for the day that Virginia, along with the other states that are still trying to make English their official language, become conscious of their reality and start helping people rather than evading them, no matter what their language is.

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