Nov 21, 2022 - Politics & Policy

DOJ takes steps to bolster language access across federal agencies

Photo of Merrick Garland speaking from a podium as Kristen Clarke stands behind him, masked

Attorney General Merrick Garland, joined by Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, speaks during a news conference at the Department of Justice in 2021 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Kevin Dietsch via Getty Images

The Department of Justice issued a memorandum Monday to improve and expand access to federal services and agencies for people with limited English proficiency (LEP).

The big picture: Roughly 8% of people 5 and older in the U.S. say they speak English less than "very well," according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That's over 26 million people.

  • Yet people with limited English proficiency continue to face barriers to and discrimination in everyday activities, whether that involves housing, voting or health care.

Driving the news: The DOJ's Civil Rights Division will work with other federal agencies to share best practices and language access resources, according to the memo.

  • Each agency will be asked to provide an updated language access plan within 180 days.
  • The DOJ's language access coordinator, who was hired into the Office for Access to Justice this year as part of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, will play a key role in assisting agencies alongside assistant attorney general Kristen Clarke.

Zoom in: The internal review will assess:

  • Where updates are needed to language access policies.
  • Whether agencies are effectively reaching people with limited English proficiency when it comes to information about federal resources, programs and services.
  • Whether agencies need to update or modify guidance to federal financial assistance recipients where it concerns their "obligations to provide meaningful language access" under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • Whether agencies can adapt digital communications to better serve people with limited English proficiency.

Zoom out: More than a decade has passed since the DOJ last encouraged partner agencies to review and strengthen the federal government's language access obligations.

  • "Although federal agencies have made significant progress since then, there remains a clear need to further enhance access to multilingual information," Attorney General Merrick Garland wrote in the memo.

What he's saying: "All people in this country, regardless of the language they speak, deserve meaningful access to programs and activities that are conducted or supported by federal agencies," Garland added.

  • "The Justice Department is committed to working with our federal partners to address linguistic barriers in governmental services that deny individuals a full opportunity to participate in economic, social, and civic life."
Go deeper