The Language of Justice

“It seems obvious that the Chinese-speaking minority receive fewer benefits than the English-speaking majority from respondents' school system, which denies them a meaningful opportunity to participate in the educational program -- all earmarks of the discrimination banned by the regulations.” – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Douglas for the majority, Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974)

Though it’s been nearly 40 years since the Lau decision – a landmark ruling that expanded the rights of non-English speaking students in America, language access still remains a critical civil rights issue today for Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and other immigrant communities.  In 2010, over 25 million individuals – about 9% of the U.S. population over age 5 – reported having limited English proficiency.  And for over two-thirds of Asian Americans and nearly one-third of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, English is not spoken at home.  

In an effort to address the persistent challenges facing limited English proficient (LEP) communities across the nation, the Federal Coordination and Compliance Section (FCS) in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has done remarkable work to improve language access in federal and federally-assisted programs and activities.  Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it’s illegal for any federally-assisted program to discriminate based on race, color, or national origin.  These protections extend to individuals with limited English proficiency.  These protections also apply to the federal government’s own programs, under an Executive Order issued by President Clinton in 2000. The many and varied programs that the federal government runs – from disaster preparedness, response, and recovery to Medicare and Social Security, to naturalization and immigration proceedings, tax collection matters, and law enforcement action – must also ensure access for LEP individuals.

At the Department of Justice, FCS has jurisdiction to address allegations of discrimination along these lines.  Along with a component of the Office of Justice Programs – known as the Office for Civil Rights – FCS ensures that recipients of DOJ grants – including the vast majority of police departments, state courts, and state and local correctional facilities and jails – comply with all applicable protections. 

This means ensuring that law enforcement officials don’t permit race, color, or national origin to influence or affect their investigative work – and that LEP individuals don’t receive fewer protections than their English-speaking counterparts.  It means working to guarantee that courts don’t discriminate or allow legal proceedings to move forward without a qualified interpreter for LEP individuals.  And in our nation’s correctional system, it means lowering communication barriers between staff and LEP inmates, while prohibiting a broad range of discriminatory practices.  After all, as Tom Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, recently said: “[i]t is essential as a safety matter and as a civil rights matter for officials who administer a jail to ensure that employees can effectively communicate with prisoners who have limited English skills.”  

In each of these areas, I am proud of the strong track record that the Justice Department has established – and continues to build upon – in the vital work of improving access for the LEP community in police departments, courthouses, and correctional facilities all across the country.  I am confident that we will continue to raise awareness, while vigorously and consistently enforcing our civil rights laws whenever and wherever appropriate.

I’m particularly grateful for the leadership that Attorney General Holder has shown in translating this commitment into action.   In 2010, the Attorney General called for the creation of a Departmental Language Access Working Group to develop, implement, and monitor the Department’s LEP plan.  This past March, we posted our language access plan, and nearly 30 Department components – including the Civil Rights Division – have developed and are currently in the process of implementing plans and procedures to ensure our ability to communicate clearly and effectively with LEP persons.  Perhaps most importantly, the Attorney General has also taken the bold step of calling upon all federal agencies to do the same, and has charged FCS with leading these efforts across federal agencies.

As Chief of FCS, I am proud to help lead this critical work for LEP communities in America.  But helping the LEP community is not just my professional mission – it’s also a personal one.  From my experience volunteering and working with a variety of nonprofits that serve Asian and Pacific Islander immigrant communities, I understand the importance of our racial and ethnic diversity, and I will strive to foster even greater inclusion for everybody living in America. 

Deeana Jang is Chief of the Federal Coordination and Compliance Section, Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice.

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