NM advocacy group sues state government alleging inadequate translation services

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The pandemic has left many Americans needing more help and, in response, Medicaid enrollment has soared and SNAP benefits have increased across the country.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty says more than 13,000 qualified New Mexicans aren’t able to sign up for these benefits because of language barriers.

"They’re unable to access the application online, which may be in their own language, but then the phone prompts are only in either English or Spanish when they call the HSD number," Verenice Peregrino Pompa, an attorney with the NM Center on Law and Poverty, explained. "So someone who speaks another language has a very difficult time navigating through all the phone options to be able to talk to a person to then ask for an interpreter."

Depending on how many people speak a certain language, federal law requires translation or interpretation services. However, NMCLP says the state isn’t following the law, so they filed a motion.

"We’ve continued to raise this issue for many years and community organizations have written letters about the issue – they’ve been the ones that have had to help people apply for benefits – so that the issue has been brought up many, many times and it still hasn’t been changed," Peregrino Pompa explained.

One of the organizations concerned with this is the New Mexico Asian Family Center. The group has helped with translation services but their biggest service is providing resources to domestic violence victims and sexual assault survivors – and the organization is having to pull resources from those services to deal with the translation issues.

"A mother with a 13 year old son was told to come back at another time and bring their own interpreter services," Chearie Alipat, a coordinator with NMAFC, said. "When you’re eligible for SNAP and HSD Medicaid, there’s an assumption that you cannot afford translation services."

A Human Services Department spokesperson said the state is complying with federal law since there are application materials available in both English and Spanish and interpretation services available in many languages, including Japanese, Korean and Thai. However, getting that help presents another challenge of going through an automated phone menu.

The HSD has filed a motion to strike and a motion for an extension.

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