The Case for Meaningful Language Access

With over two decades of experience working with immigrant families in the Richmond area, I have witnessed the growth of the immigrant community and the need for a comprehensive immigration integration policy that prioritizes language access services. This essay explores the migration trends, challenges of immigrant integration, and the importance of providing meaningful language access services to advance racial equity for immigrant families in the Richmond metropolitan area.

Richmond Racial Equity Essays — 2021 Series
Tanya M. González, M.P.A.

Through my work in the Richmond area for the last twenty years, I have dedicated my career to welcoming immigrant families, starting at Refugee and Immigration Services, then through the City of Richmond Office of Multicultural Affairs, and for the last five years, through Sacred Heart Center, where we connect Latino families with tools to thrive and flourish. I have seen first-hand the growth of the immigrant community in the Richmond area, and have been an integral part of the services in place intended to assist families in their adjustment to their new home. My key point that I am sharing is simply this: the Richmond metropolitan area needs a comprehensive immigration integration policy that centers language access services and that is implemented by localities, nonprofits, and other human service providers to begin to move towards racial equity for immigrant families. This essay presents a case through the lens of public policy for developing such a policy. However, in considering our shared humanity, and the moral case for providing meaningful language access service, I also offer the following paraphrased sentiment, attributed to Nelson Mandela: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”[1]

Migration Trends

In general, migration around the world is a constant, and the United Nations estimates that in 2005, “191 million people lived outside their country of birth, a figure that has doubled since 1975 and continues to rise.”[2] At the beginning of the twenty-first century, about one in eight residents in the United States, or 13%, were foreign born.2 This growth in the foreign-born population has implications for families through second and further generations. Children residing with at least one immigrant parent accounted for 24% of children under age 18 in 2010.[3] This growing diversity brings with it many benefits, as well as challenges, as is exemplified by Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan in Beyond the Melting Pot where it was stated, “The point about the melting pot is that it did not happen.”[4] In other words, diverse immigrants to the U.S. do not all assimilate and create one cohesive “American” identity.

Another key migration trend that has impacted our community here locally is that we have seen more immigrants moving to states that have historically not had the experience or infrastructure to promote integration. This has been the case in Virginia, and, more specifically, in the Richmond metropolitan area. Over the last two decades, the foreign born population in Virginia and in the metropolitan Richmond area has increased exponentially, going from 1 in 100 people in 1970 to 1 in 9 in 2012, based on University of Virginia research.[5] In considering the possible barriers that exist in accessing services by these diverse immigrant groups in localities that have not traditionally had the infrastructure to serve them, language proficiency is a prominent hurdle. Of the foreign-born population in each locality, a large portion has limited English proficiency. According to the Migration Policy Institute, Henrico County has 16,400 Limited English Proficient (LEP) people, or 5.8% of its total population, and the primary languages spoken in descending order are Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic, and Hindi. Chesterfield County has 12,700 LEP people, or 4.3% of its total population, and the primary languages spoken in descending order are Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese. The city of Richmond has 8,800 LEP people, or 4.6% of its total population, and the primary language spoken is Spanish.[6] While language access services have been slowly improving here in the Richmond area since I first began working with immigrant families in 2000, I believe that we have a ways to go to truly achieve racial equity in this area, as available services through different localities and nonprofits in the area are disparate and sometimes nonexistent.

Immigrant Integration

Once immigrants are in the U.S., regardless if services are adequate or not, the complicated process of immigrant integration, which is multifaceted and multilayered, begins to occur. Because immigration integration policies around the U.S., as well as locally here in the Richmond area, are more ad hoc and piecemeal, disparities emerge, in terms of access to services by immigrant families. Children that live in Richmond City, for example, may have different access to English language instruction and supports than in Chesterfield or Henrico. Families that live in Henrico may have less access to interpreters than in Richmond City or Chesterfield, when accessing health and human services. These disparities directly impact medical care, education, and many other critical aspects of daily life. In addition, immigrant integration should involve both the arriving communities and the receiving communities working together in dynamic ways to engage and transform all community members. When immigrant integration does not occur as a two-way process, immigrant communities can be isolated, segregated, and disparities increase. Communities are pitted against each other and may even compete for what are seemingly limited resources.

Language Access

Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act states that, “no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. ”8 The Supreme Court decided in the 1974 court case Lau v. Nichols that a federal fund recipient’s denial of an education to a group of non-English speakers violated Title VI and resulted in discrimination.[7] The Supreme Court thus interpreted Title VI to include “discrimination based on language as equivalent to national origin discrimination”[8]. In short, legally, because of Title VI, all entities that receive federal funding must provide meaningful language access services.

Where there is a language barrier, there is no information and no service provision, effectively isolating individuals in the community and obliterating the possibility of racial equity.  An example of this effect of communities being isolated, in my opinion, was shown through the disparate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Latinx families in the Richmond area, with translated information being delayed or sometimes not available during the first few months of the pandemic. This lack of language access services, in addition to other reasons, has resulted in the devastating impact of COVID-19 on area Latinx families. Ultimately, providing meaningful access to services for all people, regardless of the language spoken, will improve racial equity by allowing “immigrants to participate in society at the same level as native citizens.”[9]

Some of the general components of language access services include: hiring bilingual employees; providing translation (written) and interpretation (verbal) services; providing the translation of important applications and websites; and establishing language access offices.[10] Having bilingual staff allows agencies to communicate with their constituents in a more direct manner.10 When bilingual employees are limited or not an option, providing quality translation and interpretation services allow agencies to communicate with their constituents in spite of the limited bilingual staff.10 However, care must be used in selecting interpreters and translators as these are skills that require several highly specialized competencies, in addition to language competence in both languages, so as to ensure that the communication is accurate.[9]

Creating a Comprehensive Plan for Immigrant Integration in Richmond

In the metropolitan Richmond area, where some disparate language access services exist at the local level, but no comprehensive immigrant integration policies currently exist, a first important recommendation for area localities is to develop a comprehensive immigrant integration plan at the executive level of each municipality, particularly where none exists. Ideally, local Richmond area governments would collaborate together on the components and on the implementation of their plans.

Guiding Principles

Several guiding principles can frame the development of that policy for immigrant families and the receiving communities.

• Promoting the social and economic mobility of immigrant families; most notably vulnerable groups such as refugees and limited English speakers;

• Advancing antidiscrimination principles that treat immigrant family members on a par with citizen family members;

• Promoting intergovernmental fiscal equity regarding collecting taxes from, and providing support to, newcomer populations;

• Leveraging the capacity and support of the private sector; and

• Acknowledging that integration is a bidirectional process involving both the immigrant family and receiving community adaptations.[11]


With these guiding principles that have as their undercurrent racial equity for immigrant populations in mind, several concrete strategies can be recommended to localities in the Richmond area, using national models as input. Many of these recommendations could also be implemented by area nonprofit and other public service organizations.

• Create a language access policy and implementation plan that outlines procedures and protocol, monitor and ensure Title VI of the Civil Rights Act is adhered to at the customer service level in all local departments.

• Commit to staff training on immigrant eligibility for services, working with interpreters and translators, and cultural awareness training for the populations that have larger percentages represented in each locality.

• Commit to bilingual staff training for all staff members that are currently performing the role of interpreter or translator in addition to their other regularly assigned duties.

• Develop and implement a plan, if one does not already exist, to effectively notify LEP clients of their eligibility for benefits, programs, and language access services that are available to them.

• Use technology to facilitate language access service delivery through telephonic systems, such as language line, and other tools.

• Implement an evaluation system in order to monitor progress, along with a timeline for adjusting the services and programs according to the outcomes.

An immigrant integration policy adopted by all area localities, along with a robust language access service program will assist both the service providers and the immigrant community here in the Richmond area to better understand and access available services and programs. In addition, ensuring effective access to available services will improve the overall health of immigrant families and, ultimately, of the entire community. The benefits that the local language access policies can bring to the community are apparent, recognizing that contributing to the health and safety of immigrant families, results in advancing racial equity for a segment of the population that can sometimes be isolated and excluded by the very systems that should be welcoming newcomers to their new home.

While several area localities are doing some language access services, I believe that there is still a missed opportunity to implement a more comprehensive and strategic immigration integration approach. Even after twenty years of work, I think that language access continues to be an uncultivated public policy issue in the Richmond area. Unless real racial equity gains are advanced in this area, we may continue to ask, as James Baldwin did many years ago, “How much time do you want for your progress?”[12]

End Notes

[1] De Galbert, P. (2019). My Favorite Nelson Mandela (mis)Quote. Retrieved May 1, 2021, from,beautiful%20that%20it%E2%80%99s%20been%20repeated%20so%20many%20times

[2] Bloemraad, I., Korteweg, A., & Yurdakul, G. (2008). Citizenship And Immigration: Multiculturalism, Assimilation, And Challenges To The Nation-State. Annual Review of Sociology, 153-179. Retrieved November 28, 2014, from

[3] NPNA - Principles for Immigrant Integration. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2014, from

[4] Brubaker, R. (2001). The return of assimilation? Changing perspectives on immigration and its sequels in France, Germany, and the United States. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 24(4), 531-548. Retrieved November 28, 2014, from

[5] Foreign-born population has increased rapidly in Va. (2014, March 3). Retrieved November 29, 2014, from

[6] Migration Policy Institute tabulations from the US Census Bureau’s pooled 2009-2011 American Community Survey (for the United States and states, except Wyoming and Puerto Rico) and 2007-2011 ACS (for counties, plus Wyoming and Puerto Rico), Table B16001 “Language Spoken at Home by Ability to Speak English for the Population 5 Years and Over,” available through American FactFinder at . Data were compiled by Joseph Russell, Jeanne Batalova, and Chhandasi Pandya of MPI.

[7] Limited English Proficiency FAQs. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2014, from

[8] Chen, A., Youdelman, M., & Brooks, J. (2007). The Legal Framework for Language Access in Healthcare Settings: Title VI and Beyond. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 22(2), 362-367. Retrieved November 29, 2014, from

[9] Immigrant Integration In-depth. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2014, from

[10] Language Access Assessment and Planning Tool for Federally Conducted and Federally Assisted Programs. U.S. Department of Justice. (2011, May 1). Retrieved December 1, 2014, from

[11] Fix, M., Zimmermann, W., & Passel, J. (2001). The Integration of Immigrant Families in the United States. Retrieved November 28, 2014, from

[12] Thorsen, Karen, William Miles, Douglas K. Dempsey, Don Lenzer, Steven Olswang, Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, William Styron, and Maya Angelou. 1990. James Baldwin: the price of the ticket.

About the author

Tanya M. González, M.P.A.

Tanya M. González holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Latin American Studies from Brown University and a Master’s in Public Administration from Virginia Commonwealth University. Ms. González joined the Sacred Heart Center as theExecutive Director in July 2016. She grew up on the Texas-Mexican border and has lived in Richmond for twenty-six years. She has almost 20 years’ experience in working with and for Richmond’s Latino community. Ms. González is a graduate ofLeadership Metro Richmond and the Connecting Communities Fellowship Program,as well as the Minority Political Leadership Institute. She was previouslythe recipient of the Ohtli award, given by the Mexican government to recognize individuals for their service to the Mexican community in the United States. Ms. González was also recognized as one of “Richmond’s Top 40 under 40” by Style Magazine in 2005 and received the Leadership Metro Richmond Ukrop Community Vision Award in 2015. In 2018, she received the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities Humanitarian Award, and in 2020, she was recognized as a Richmond History Maker by the Valentine Museum. In her free time, Ms. González coordinates a dance group at the Sacred Heart Center that performs traditional Latin American and Spanish dance in the Richmond area.

Tanya M. González, M.P.A.
About the author

Tanya M. González, M.P.A.

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