After months of struggle, Korean language access advocates find their voice at a legislative hearing
In a key step on their quest to make state services more easily available to non-English speakers, advocates from Houston’s Woori Juntos community group testified before a panel of lawmakers.
Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
This story is the fourth 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.
Young Kil Han rose from his front-row seat in the basement hearing room and approached the podium holding his story in his hands.
Reading from printed notes, the 80-year-old explained to a panel of lawmakers how he came to the United States from South Korea in 1981, taking on cleaning and painting jobs to make a living. The fragile stability he built came crumbling down in 2009 when he was diagnosed with colon cancer and left to pay the majority of the medical bills out of pocket.
Out of work following surgery and treatment, he skipped meals over the course of six months while recovering.
Han did not know he was eligible for state food stamp benefits that could have helped him cover groceries; there was no program outreach in Korean. Even if he had known, he would not have been able to fill out the application that the state only provides in English and in Spanish.
“My story is not unique. There are many Korean seniors who also struggle to receive state health benefits because they cannot understand English,” Han told the committee in Korean.
It was a message the staff of Woori Juntos, a local community group working to eliminate language barriers to health and social services, had been working for months to deliver, crisscrossing the halls of the Texas Capitol asking for their community to be heard. Legislative newcomers, they first found success in persuading two Democratic lawmakers to carry 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.
House Bill 5166 moved further along when it was set for a public hearing of the House Human Services Committee that Han was addressing, bringing with him the realities of an untold number of Texans who speak little English and who are relegated to the margins in a state where government often does not speak to its people in a language they understand.
“I now think back on how if the application was in Korean, I could have applied earlier by myself. I could have suffered less and lived life with full liberty and freedom,” said Han, who was later able to apply for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits with Woori Juntos’ help. “HB 5166 would fix all of this in translating these applications into Korean and other languages. It would have helped me 14 years ago, and I know, if passed, it will help someone else.”
Behind him sat the contingent of older Korean Texans who had traveled to Austin with him, departing Houston at 4 a.m. and arriving early Tuesday morning, when the Capitol grounds were still quiet under a gloomy sky.
Just Han and Terry Yun, Woori Juntos’ service coordinator who helps Korean Texans navigate the state benefits programs’ limited language options, spoke to lawmakers during the hearing. The committee had asked them to limit their testimony given its full agenda at this late stage of the legislative session. But the group of about 20 Houstonians made the trek anyway — packing the committee room so that lobbyists and other Capitol regulars were left standing in the back — in hopes of showing the need for better language access to what are often crucial state health services.
Woori Juntos’ executive director, Hyunja Norman, hoped their showing would also help solidify the role Korean and immigrant Texans should be playing in the decisions state lawmakers make on their behalf.
A longtime language justice advocate in Houston, Norman has ushered hundreds of Korean Texans into the political process. Many of them came to the United States as adults, often working physically demanding jobs that left little room for them to learn English. She’s translated ballots and organized get-out-the-vote events, with interpreters on hand, so that the mostly older residents are not kept from participating. But she also wants them to be considered by the people who are getting elected.
“What I’m hoping for is belonging,” Norman said. “We are part of Texas. This is what we are trying to bring to the table — the people’s voice.”
In the committee room, state Rep. Penny Morales Shaw, the Houston Democrat carrying the bill, told lawmakers that translations of benefit program materials would help ensure Texans were connected to the services the Legislature works to provide them.
HB 5166 would require the state Health and Human Services Commission to enact a broader language-access plan to step up its language options. The plan would require translated versions of the state’s health benefits portal, program applications and forms into additional languages beyond Spanish, including Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese and Arabic.
For months, Woori Juntos has provided lawmakers with data showing that Texans with limited English proficiency are less likely to have health insurance coverage compared with Texans who are proficient. Hundreds of thousands of Texans speak languages other than English or Spanish at home with limited English proficiency.
“What good does all of our work do if our neighbors, our friends, our employees don’t have access to that information and they can’t take advantage of it?” Morales Shaw said.
During the hearing, Democratic committee members sought to affirm the testimony provided by Yun, Han and Wafa Alatrakche, a Houstonian who testified in Arabic about the challenges she faced navigating health systems following an injury she sustained while working at a hotel.
Republican committee members offered no feedback beyond a moment in which state Rep. James Frank, who chairs the committee, asked Alatrakche how long she had been in the United States.
“I want us to be able to provide information to people but also try to figure out if we can’t speak a common language, how can we ever get, I guess almost, to the next level?” Frank said. “It’s very limited in jobs if you can’t communicate with people. Is that right?”
Alatrakche, who moved here in 2012 from war-torn Iraq, responded that she speaks and understands enough English to interact with others but struggled with filling out forms like benefit applications chock-full of more technical terms.
It’s unclear what path Woori Juntos’ legislation will take from here. HB 5166 was left pending in the committee, as is usual after a public hearing, but it’s possible it will never make it past that point. Each legislative session, thousands of bills don’t even make it to a hearing. A vast majority of bills will never become law.
The House is also less than two weeks away from a key deadline by which bills must be voted out of committee. The odds of legislation then making it onto the daily agenda of bills to be considered by the full chamber are fading.
But Woori Juntos and its community members plan to continue pushing.
Following the hearing, they took a short break in a nearby conference room, chatting over rice punch, Korean sauna eggs and pieces of fruit before distributing Capitol maps and assignments for the office visits they’d be making to members of the committee. They had more stories and testimony to provide.
Before breaking up into smaller groups for those office visits, they gathered in the Capitol’s outdoor rotunda during a break in the morning drizzle.
With Yun translating for the group, Steven Wu, Woori Juntos’ organizing and policy manager, invoked the organizing spirit of the California farm workers who brought to life the labor movement of the 1960s. Wu explained that when Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta joined forces with leaders like Larry Itliong, they used a clapping exercise — starting up slow at first and then speeding up — to bridge the language gap between Mexican American and Filipino American farm workers.
The group began putting their hands together in unison, their claps filling the outdoor rotunda before they headed off to keep working.
Annie Mulligan contributed to this report.
We can’t wait to welcome you Sept. 21-23 to the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, our multiday celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news — all taking place just steps away from the Texas Capitol. When tickets go on sale in May, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.
Quality journalism doesn't come free
Perhaps it goes without saying — but producing quality journalism isn't cheap. At a time when newsroom resources and revenue across the country are declining, The Texas Tribune remains committed to sustaining our mission: creating a more engaged and informed Texas with every story we cover, every event we convene and every newsletter we send. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on members to help keep our stories free and our events open to the public. Do you value our journalism? Show us with your support.Yes, I'll donate today