Advocates for Hawaii immigrants want more transparency in how well — or poorly — state agencies are following the state’s language access law.

A proposal for an annual compliance report is one of several measures that advocates for Hawaii’s non-English speaking community are pushing at the Legislature this session.

“This pandemic has caused us to reflect on where the gaps are and what the need is and we have to continue the momentum,” said Agnes Malate, who spoke Thursday on behalf of the FilCom Cares group during a virtual talk story event.

Bennette Misalucha
Bennette Misalucha, pictured in 2017, participated in a Zoom talk story event Thursday to discuss bills related to immigrants in Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

Pat McManaman, former director of the Department of Human Services, criticized the state’s lack of commitment to its own language access law.

She said the fact that the Department of Health didn’t roll out pandemic-related interpretation and translation services until 10 months into the pandemic hit Pacific Islander and Filipino communities particularly hard. Since then, she said, the Health Department’s translation work has improved considerably.

McManaman noted that even though it’s been 15 years since Hawaii required state agencies to provide interpreters for non-English speakers, the state has faced at least nine federal complaints for denying language access.

She said Hawaii lacks centralized leadership for language access services at the governor’s office and noted the Office of Language Access has no enforcement authority.

Sixteen House lawmakers have co-signed a bill that’s aimed at addressing that issue. House Bill 1762 — and its companion Senate Bill 2459 — would require the state Office of Language Access to submit an annual report on state agencies’ compliance with the law and complaints against agencies.

The measure would also set aside funding for limited English proficiency language coordinators at several agencies, including the Health Department, the Emergency Management Agency, Department of Agriculture and Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.

“What we’re talking about is access and equity,” said Amy Agbayani, a Filipina immigrant and a longtime advocate for her community. “Immigrants are creating jobs and they could actually benefit the state if they had a little more help from DCCA.”

Agbayani also wants the Legislature to back a new limited-purpose state identification card. Hawaii already has a limited-purpose driver’s license that allows people who may not have the documentation to qualify for federally approved driver’s licenses to drive in Hawaii.

Agbayani said this proposal — which has the backing of 15 House lawmakers for House Bill 1761 and is also introduced in the Senate as Senate Bill 2456 — would achieve a similar goal but for people who don’t or can’t drive.

“If you don’t have an ID I don’t know if you can really get into a restaurant at this point,” she said, referring to Oahu’s Safe Access program that requires an ID along with vaccination cards or a negative Covid-19 test to enter restaurants.

Several of the people who spoke at the event Thursday were affiliated with The Legal Clinic, a nonprofit that provides free immigration services to low-income immigrants and migrants.

The organization is backing House Bill 1759 and Senate Bill 2458, which would each provide more funding for immigration legal services to help low-income immigrants through contracts with Hawaii State Judiciary.

HB 1759 is co-sponsored by 14 lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti and has two committee referrals.

Another proposal would restore funding to the state’s Department of Labor and Industrial Relations and the Office of Community Services for immigrant resource centers.

The Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations recently entered a settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor’s civil rights division to improve its unemployment application process.

Many non-English speakers struggled to get much-needed unemployment benefits during the pandemic, even if they were lucky enough to get through the tied-up unemployment office phone lines.

Suzanne Zeng, who runs Language Services Hawaii that provides interpretation services, said her organization has struggled with not having enough interpreters to meet the needs of the community.

The needs are particularly stark at health care settings. Zeng showed a graph of the language requests received by her organization in 2021, 80% of which came from health care settings. The most-requested languages were Chuukese and Korean, even though these aren’t the most commonly spoken languages in Hawaii according to the state’s Office of Language Access.

The Filipino Caucus is also pushing to make it easier for immigrant nurses to work in Hawaii, which could help address the state’s nursing shortage.

More than a dozen House lawmakers introduced House Bill 1758 that would allow more foreign nurses to practice here. The proposal has been referred to three committees on the House side, a high bar for a bill to become law.

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