How important is language access to protecting your civil rights and liberties?

Language access is essential to our rights. Everyone has a right to dignity, respect, and equitable treatment regardless of whether they speak, read, write, or understand English.

As Utah’s population grows, the state is rapidly becoming linguistically diverse. Guaranteeing language access when interacting with government agencies is crucial for preserving and recognizing the civil rights of limited English proficient (LEP) people.

What is “limited English proficiency”?

The term “limited English proficiency” refers to individuals with a limited ability to speak, read, write, or understand English. This term differs from ESL (English as a Second Language), typically used to describe individuals for whom English is not their first language but is a language they speak. Individuals identifying as LEP are not limited to immigrants or refugees but are also speakers of Indigenous languages (such as Diné Bizaad) and U.S. Citizens and Nationals from U.S. territories.

“English-only” laws erode our civil rights and liberties

Federal law recognizes and protects the right to language access in federally funded programs and activities. While state and local government agencies may be subject to this mandate, many states, including Utah, have adopted “English-only” laws and policies, causing and contributing to state government officials and agencies failing to address language barriers, and increasing the likelihood of infringing on our civil rights and liberties. As a result, even after Utah’s version of an “English-only” law was revised to allow the expansion of language access, Utahns who have limited English proficiency Utahns may face unequal treatment by state, city, and local governments. 

Does Federal law guarantee language access?

Yes, Federal law guarantees language access under the Civil Rights Act and Executive Order 13166.  Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, “[n]o 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”. The United States Supreme Court has interpreted this provision to mean that discrimination based on a person’s inability to speak, read, write, or understand English constitutes discrimination based on national origin. In 2000, Executive Order 13166 (“EO 13166”) “Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency” aimed to implement Title VI and reduce language barriers while improving meaningful access to federally funded programs for LEP individuals. EO 13166 directed federal agencies to develop and implement a plan to ensure LEP individuals’ access to federally run programs and required agencies providing federal financial assistance to issue guidance to their recipients to ensure that LEP individuals have meaningful access to the programs. EO 13166’s requirements also apply to any entity receiving federal funds, including state and local agencies, private and nonprofit entities, sub-recipients such as law enforcement agencies, jails and prisons, and county governments. 

Since the issuance of EO 13166, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has published numerous memoranda to guide federal agencies and recipients regarding its implementation. In 2000, the DOJ released policy guidance to introduce principles for agencies to use when creating LEP guidelines, emphasizing using a four-factor analysis. The analysis includes:

  1. The number or proportion of LEP persons eligible to be served or likely to be encountered by the program or grantee/recipient.
  2. The frequency with which LEP persons come into contact with the program.
  3. The nature and importance of the program, activity, or service provided by the program to people’s lives.
  4. The resources available to the grantee/recipient and costs.

Brief Timeline of Lanague Access Laws and Policies in Utah

While federal law and agencies require language access, Utah has a checkered past regarding providing language access.

The timeline above shows that the Cox Administration has made efforts to expand language access in recent years. More must be done at all levels of state, county, and local government to ensure that LEP individuals have full access to information provided by government entities and are treated equitably and to address the remnants of the “English-only” law, which was in place for two decades. It has contributed to the ongoing lack of information presented by government entities to LEP individuals in many contexts, alongside disparate treatment when interacting with certain government entities.

Over the next few months, the ACLU of Utah will be publishing a series of papers exploring language access policies and where improvements must be made for government agencies to truly provide justice and equal rights for all Utahns.

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