As the legislative clock ticks, Houston language advocates angle for a committee hearing
The window is closing for Woori Juntos in its pursuit of legislation to improve language access to state health programs.
This story is the third in a series about Texans seeking to have their voices heard during the legislative session. The Texas Tribune has been following the staff of Woori Juntos, a Houston community group, as they try to convince lawmakers that their community is worth helping by knocking down language barriers that stand between non-English-speaking Texans and their government.
With each passing day at the Capitol, the staff of Woori Juntos, a community group serving Houston’s Korean community, were seeing the prospects dim for legislation they hoped would improve language access to crucial state health services for tens of thousands of Texans who speak little to no English.
It was enough of a challenge finding lawmakers to carry the bills that would require the state’s health commission to translate benefit application forms and other important documents into key languages beyond English and Spanish. With time slipping away, they were growing nervous that the measures hadn’t yet been heard by legislative committees, a crucial step if they are to reach the full House and Senate chambers for a vote.
As the legislative session entered its final stretch, the Woori Juntos team had been forced to adopt two traits often demanded of Texans asking for change from their government — perseverance and patience. They kept showing up in Capitol offices, hallways and hearing rooms, believing the efforts could turn the odds in their favor.
“This is a bipartisan issue that should not be political,” said Steven Wu, Woori Juntos’ organizing and policy manager. “This is just about increasing access to enrollment so that people have a shot of improving their health outcomes. That’s it. It’s very simple.”
The odds are always long for legislation that isn’t among each session’s high-profile priority bills. During the last regular legislative session in 2021, for instance, nearly 7,000 bills were filed but fewer than half were even considered in a public committee hearing. Roughly 700 foundered after those hearings, never receiving the committee vote needed to move on to the full House or Senate. Of those that were voted out of committee, only 1,030 eventually passed.
The group’s urgency to improve access to the state safety net had built up over the last two years as it fell to Woori Juntos to shepherd Korean Texans, mostly low-income older residents who speak very little English, across the language gap keeping them from accessing the state health programs they needed to cover health care costs and even groceries. In a year with a historic $32.7 billion budget surplus, they were pitching their proposal as a small investment in those Texans.
They overcame a first major hurdle back in early March when they convinced Democratic lawmakers in both the House and Senate to file legislation that would create a language access plan for the health commission.
Since then, its small policy team had been working to build support for their cause among lawmakers, regularly dropping in on lawmakers’ offices to detail their work back in Spring Branch, where the community group helps mostly Korean-speaking Texans navigate the state’s limited options in applying for state-run programs like Medicaid and food stamps.
The state provides Texans who speak limited English with some language assistance, translating applications for state health and social services programs into Spanish. In theory, the state health commission’s contract with a language line service should provide support in more than 150 other languages. But the state benefits helpline first requires callers to get through an automated system with limited language options before they can request an interpreter.
As lawmakers worked through hundreds of other legislative proposals, Woori Juntos dutifully fulfilled requests for data and information on how the policy proposal would benefit constituents in different districts. Their clients are among the nearly 60,000 Texans who speak Korean at home, at least half of them with limited English proficiency. But they make up just a slice of the hundreds of thousands of Texans who speak languages other than English or Spanish at home.
“We’re providing as much information as we can in the meantime,” Wu said back in March. “We’re waiting for them to get to [our] bill.”
Their efforts had been rewarded with the endorsement of the half a dozen lawmakers who signed on to Rep. Penny Morales Shaw’s House Bill 5166 and three senators who joined Sen. José Menéndez as co-authors on Senate Bill 2080. This week, they were waiting to hear back from a few more who signaled they might also be adding their names.
From the start, Woori Juntos has conceded it could take multiple sessions to make it through the legislative relay, but they’ve remained hopeful for a public hearing — not only because it would help advance their legislative efforts but because of the significance it could hold for the people they serve.
“Taking those actions, speaking their voice, trying to gain as much support, giving them an opportunity to see this is real work that we’re doing and then seeing how far it goes — it’s empowerment for our community members,” said Nicole Ma, the group’s organizing and policy associate. “And I think that’s what’s really important.”
Thinking ahead to that possibility, Woori Juntos gathered community members in mid-March for two educational and training sessions on the Legislature and how to engage with legislators.
Through headsets for interpretation and slides on the state budget and how a bill becomes a law translated into Korean, the staff brought the legislative process into the first-floor event space of the Korean Community Center that houses Woori Juntos’ offices.
Gathered at round foldout tables, the mostly older community members learned about testifying before a committee and how to best make their case. Be clear and concise. Offer personal stories that capture the potential impact of a proposal. Avoid repeating what others have already said.
They were given time to work on sample remarks they might offer during a public hearing or during meetings with lawmakers. When they reconvened to practice, a few participants stood at the front of the room and proudly offered their testimony.
They told stories of being unable to advocate for themselves because of their limited English proficiency and the challenges they and their neighbors faced in accessing government systems that didn’t account for them. They spoke about their desire to be regarded as equals in society.
One participant spoke of getting by with little English while running a laundromat, but hitting a wall when it came time for parent-teacher conferences without interpretation help. Another spoke about the challenges of requesting emergency services with limited English. Practicing for a meeting with her representative, Terry Yun brought forth her experiences as Woori Juntos’ service coordinator and how it’s fallen to her to fill the language gap left by government.
“I see how hard it is for immigrants to receive correct information and access city, county, state or even federal benefits,” Yun said, reading from notes. “My ask to my representative, Lacey Hull, is I want my fellow immigrants to have the liberty to make decisions for themselves by having state information accessible in Korean and many other languages. Will you support this language justice cause to help tens of thousands of non-English-speaking immigrants?”
While waiting to learn if their language access bill would be heard, the group’s members put their training into practice last week at a hearing on a House bill that would create a state border enforcement unit of officers and civilians.
With a 4 a.m. wake-up call in Houston, the group made its way to the Capitol to join the droves of Texans wanting to speak against the measure, which would empower officers and civilians to “deter and repel” and arrest migrants if they were seen illegally crossing the border, then return them to Mexico.
The proposal might have seemed far removed from their lives in Houston, Wu said, but the Woori Juntos contingent that came to testify wanted to advocate for the rights of immigrants and echo other opponents of the measure who worry about increased policing in border communities.
The nearly 300 people signed up to testify were left waiting until 10 p.m. that night to begin testifying in front of the House committee considering the legislation. But the Woori Juntos folks stuck it out, with the last of them not getting their turn until around 1:30 a.m.
As they work to increase participation in the legislative process among non-English-speaking Texans, the hearing also offered Woori Juntos a look into how the Capitol manages interpretation services. In the lead-up to the hearing, Wu had requested that a Korean interpreter be assigned to support their community members who wanted to testify in their native language.
It was important to them, Wu explained, to confront lawmakers with their reality in hopes of telegraphing what it feels like to navigate the world in a second language.
“To our knowledge, this was the first time ever that Korean was spoken in the Capitol in a public hearing,” he said.
Despite the potential milestone, the hearing served as an example of the sort of language injustices Woori Juntos is attempting to combat through its work.
Public testimony was limited to two minutes per person, as is typical for hearings with a large number of people signed up to testify. Those testifying in a language other than English were granted three minutes, but that included time for the translation of their remarks. This meant non-English speakers were left with just a minute and half for their testimony.
After returning to Houston following the hearing and then driving back to Austin for this week’s Capitol work, Woori Juntos’ policy team was drained. The uncertainty of whether their community would have an opportunity to make themselves heard began to weigh on them more heavily.
Other legislation was moving. Debates on the House and Senate floors were becoming more drawn out. The halls of the Capitol were growing more and more crowded. The clock for bills to wind their way through it all was ticking.
Then, a Tuesday morning meeting with Morales Shaw offered them a jolt of energy. The Houston Democrat had been informed by the chair of the House committee to which their bill had been referred that it would get a hearing.
The representative warned them that it wasn’t a sure thing until the bill was officially scheduled on the committee’s agenda. But it was enough for them to push forward.
“This gives us a lot of hope and resolve for the next two to three weeks,” Wu said.
Soon after, they got word that their bill would be heard in committee the following week. By then, they’d be less than two weeks away from a key deadline for House bills to be voted out of committee.
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