Key Finding: Forty-Six Respondents with Court Experience Say There Were No Interpreters for Them

Language is one of the greatest barriers faced by Latino immigrants in the South. When they enter schools, hospitals or courts, they often find there's no interpreter. This means that for many Latinos there is no one to help them communicate with a teacher, a doctor or even the judge deciding their fate.

Of the places the survey asked about, Latinos said they were least likely to find an interpreter in court. Forty-six percent of those reporting a court experience said there was no interpreter.

Marty Kaufman, a registered interpreter in Georgia, isn't surprised by the results. Georgia has a certification process to ensure that interpreters are qualified for the job, but many courts still use unregistered people, she said. Often, courts in rural areas of the state do not provide interpreters at all or provide those with questionable ability.

"They go down to the local Mexican restaurant and bring someone in, literally, to interpret," Kaufman said.

The lack of an interpreter has created courtroom situations that border on the absurd. There have been incidents reported in the South in which attorneys communicated with clients through their children.1 One person interviewed for this report recounted an incident in an Alabama court where Latinos charged with traffic violations were asked to put an "X" on one hand and an "O" on the other. They would use one mark to indicate their innocence and the other to indicate their guilt. One immigrant advocate interviewed for this report cited a domestic violence case where the girlfriend of the alleged perpetrator was asked to interpret for the victim.

"That's not justice. It's awful," said Isabel Rubio, director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama.

Despite the common criticism that problems stemming from the language barrier are the result of Latino immigrants refusing to assimilate and learn English, almost 57 percent of Latinos questioned in a survey by the Pew Hispanic Center believe immigrants must speak English to say they are part of American society. An overwhelming 92 percent of all Latinos in that survey said it is "very important" to teach English to the children of immigrant families. The number was even greater for foreign-born Latinos, of whom 96 percent said it was a "very important" goal.2

These results suggest a desire to learn English and assimilate. Nonetheless, interpreters are needed to bridge the gap as this assimilation occurs. The failure to provide adequate interpreters in court is deeply troubling and clearly unlawful.

Unfortunately, it occurs all too often.

Sometimes, the attempts to bridge the language gap not only raise serious legal questions but are a source of embarrassment. Officials in Rogers, Ark., discovered that the Spanish-language rights waiver signed by a man pleading guilty to driving while intoxicated stated that he was charged with "a murder" and that his penalty was "1 anus in jail and a $1,000 fine."3 A court clerk who spoke Spanish but wasn't certified by the state had translated the waiver form into Spanish several years earlier.

Agencies Fail to Comply with Civil Rights Laws

These failures extend well beyond the courts. The SPLC's experience has shown that many Southern agencies (schools, hospitals, social service offices and other critical resources) are failing to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which provides that no person shall be subjected to discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

Title VI prohibits agencies receiving federal money from denying persons with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) access to programs on the basis of their national origin. These agencies must take steps to ensure services are provided to LEP individuals in a non-discriminatory manner.

Yet even court systems across the region have failed to comply with the most basic constitutional due process protections by ensuring that non-English speakers understand the charges against them and have a meaningful opportunity to be heard.

The Justice Department acknowledged in The Police Chief, a law enforcement trade publication, that recipients of federal funding — including police departments — have an obligation to make their services accessible to non-English speakers:

Beyond the common sense reasons for addressing language barriers in police work, there are laws obligating police departments to ensure that LEP people can access their services. As a condition of receiving federal money, police departments and other recipients of federal financial assistance must comply with certain legal obligations, such as adherence to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its implementing regulations.

Under Title VI, police departments and other recipients of federal financial assistance must provide services accessible to all, regardless of race, color, or national origin. Individuals who are limited in their English ability are often protected by Title VI, where language serves as a proxy for national origin discrimination. By failing to provide appropriate language services to an LEP individual, police departments effectively exclude that individual from accessing the same benefits, services, information, or rights as every one else. Noncompliant police departments facing a Justice Department investigation may find themselves drained of valuable time, money, and personnel resources as they attempt to defend themselves against allegations of civil rights violations.4

Unfortunately, for many of the people whose rights under Title VI are violated, there is no effective remedy. A 2001 Supreme Court decision overturned decades of precedent under Title VI with its decision in Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001).

Ruling Reverses Decades of Precedent

Sandoval, a case brought by the SPLC, was a class action lawsuit contending that the state of Alabama violated Title VI by requiring applicants for a driver's license to take the written examination in English.

The suit alleged that Alabama's policy unjustifiably excluded non-English speakers from receiving a driver's license, discriminating against them based on their national origin. Before adopting an English-only amendment to the state constitution in 1990, the state had administered the test in 14 languages.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama ruled in the plaintiffs' favor and ordered the Alabama Department of Public Safety to accommodate non-English speakers. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit affirmed that decision.

The Supreme Court's decision in Sandoval, however, abruptly reversed nearly three decades of precedent, including the unanimous views of all federal appeals courts that had addressed the issue. The federal courts had long interpreted Title VI and its regulations to imply a private right of action to sue for both intentional and "disparate impact" discrimination. Disparate impact discrimination is when minorities are disproportionately injured by a policy or practice whose effects cannot be justified. In Sandoval, the Supreme Court said there was no private right of action to enforce the disparate impact provisions of Title VI.

The ability to sue for disparate impact discrimination is important because proving intentional discrimination is often exceedingly difficult.

Meanwhile, Latinos across the South find themselves in a struggle.

Parents, for example, find themselves unable to be involved in their children's education because their school has no ability to interact with a Spanish-speaking parent. Other times, individuals are turned away from medical treatment and told to return with their own interpreter.

Kaufman, the registered interpreter, said this is the case at the indigent clinic for pregnant women in her area of rural Georgia. It has spurred a cottage industry where unqualified and unregistered interpreters are offering their services for hire to Latinos — a prospect that could compromise medical care.

The language problems are compounded in some areas by so-called "English-only" laws. Such laws restrict the use of languages other than English in the delivery of government services.

Some government officials are now rethinking the wisdom of English-only ordinances and even repealing them in light of the expense of enforcing and defending them in court, and the publicity and accusations of racism that such laws attract.

In December 2008, for example, Oak Point, a small town north of Dallas, killed an English-only measure that had been adopted a year earlier.5 "For us to spend our time pitting neighbor against neighbor was a sacrilege," City Councilwoman Judith Camp said. "We're just a tiny little city and we were getting a lot of negative publicity."6

In Nashville, voters soundly defeated an English-only measure in January 2009 that would have required all Metro Nashville government business to be conducted in English. The defeat prevented Nashville from becoming the largest city in the country with such a rule.7

Still, much work remains as the language barrier continues to create a circle of frustration for Latinos.

Miguel recounted for SPLC researchers his brother's experience after complaining of back pain at work. The Georgia Latino was taken to the hospital — only to see a doctor who could not speak Spanish. After Miguel found an interpreter, the doctor said he could not speak to any third party about his brother's condition, including the interpreter.

"So who was going to explain to my brother what was wrong if the doctor didn't speak Spanish and my brother didn't speak English?" Miguel said. "These are inexplicable things."

1. Brendan Kirby, "Courts Struggle with Language Barrier," Mobile (Ala.) Register, Feb. 26, 2007.

2. "Hispanic Attitudes Toward Learning English," Pew Hispanic Center fact sheet, June 7, 2006.

3. Michelle Bradford, "Translation Errors Raise Legal Issues," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Feb. 24, 2008.

4. Bharathi A. Venkatraman, Civil Rights Division Coordination and Review Section, U.S. Department of Justice, "Lost in Translation Limited English Proficient Populations and the Police," The Police Chief, April 2006.

5. Emily Bazar, "Revisiting Immigration Ordinances," USA Today, Feb. 11, 2009.

6. Id.

7. Chris Echegaray, "Nashville's English-Only Measure Defeated," The Tennessean, Jan. 23, 2009.