How the South botched Spanish-language outreach on COVID-19


“I don’t know how I’m going to do this,” the man on the phone stammered in Spanish, his voice cracking. “I’m asking you, please. Whatever you can ... I’m desperate for me and my family. I cannot help them. Please help us.”

María Cruz was already stretched thin. On that June morning, the community organizer had two laptops open and a phone ringing every few minutes with new callers seeking COVID-19 information in Spanish. Her employer, the nonprofit Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, set up the hotline to supplement the lack of translated public health materials in a state with a Latino population of nearly 200,000.

The man on the phone told her that he, his wife, and their three children, all Mexican immigrants like Cruz, were exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. The man had it the worst. His feverish body ached. He could barely move. He didn’t have a car, but told her he was was willing to walk 20 miles to the nearest testing site, which was near Montgomery.

But he needed Cruz’s help ensuring that he would have appointments for all five of them once the family arrived. No one at the testing site spoke Spanish, and he didn’t speak English. He also had questions: Did it cost anything? If so, he hadn’t worked in weeks, so would they take a payment plan? Do they require identification? He’s undocumented. Could getting tested lead to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid at their home?

“I’ve never heard a man cry like that,” Cruz said.

Across the South, advocates say state officials are routinely failing to provide services and public health information in Spanish, the United States’ second-most common language and the primary tongue of millions of people across the region. That failure has proven disastrous in a community that disproportionately works essential jobs, lives in multigenerational households and, in many cases, fears seeking medical care could jeopardize legal status or expose undocumented people to ICE.

Tennessee, home to 322,000 Hispanic people, confirmed its first coronavirus case on March 5, but the state Department of Health didn’t roll out a Spanish-language website until July 22.

A sign is visible outside of Jim R. Miller Park during the first day of drive-thru coronavirus testing in Marietta, Georgia. 
A sign is visible outside of Jim R. Miller Park during the first day of drive-thru coronavirus testing in Marietta, Georgia.

North Carolina waited until July 16 to launch a Spanish COVID-19 website, despite a Hispanic population topping 1 million and Latinos suffering the highest infection rate of any minority in the state.

Even Florida ― where Spanish predates English, more than one-quarter of the population is Latino and nearly 30% of the population speaks a language other than English at home ― offered scant Spanish-language materials as the virus spread across the state.

‘No Se Habla’ Is Nothing New

Latino immigration to the Deep South soared in the 1990s, and has continued to grow since. The Latino population in Alabama has, by the state’s own estimate, increased 208% in the past three decades.

Between 2007 and 2014, counties in Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana experienced some of the country’s highest upticks in Latino population, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census data. Large percentages of those communities are foreign-born, including nearly half of Hispanics in Florida, 44% in Georgia and 37% in Alabama.

Yet while some counties have expanded language services to accommodate those communities, many statewide efforts have focused on limiting undocumented immigrants’ access to public benefits.

Alabama passed one of the nation’s most restrictive anti-immigrant laws in 2011, giving police vast leeway to interrogate any suspect’s legal status and barring the undocumented from using any state or local public services. Florida last year banned so-called “sanctuary cities” for undocumented immigrants. North Carolina’s Republican-dominated legislature, meanwhile, passed a bill last year forcing all county sheriffs to assist in ICE efforts to detain or deport immigrants.

The United States has no official language. But 29 states have enacted laws or constitutional amendments making English the official language, according to a tally by language policy expert James Crawford. Of those, at least 10 are states in the Southeast, including Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.

The threat of ICE arrest deters some sick immigrants from getting tested or seeking help.
The threat of ICE arrest deters some sick immigrants from getting tested or seeking help.

That rigid, ideological objection to accommodating the existing populations of the states left public officials unprepared to provide crisis information to residents in those communities, said Genesis Castro, a program manager at the Latino Community Fund of Georgia.

“If the governments were already doing the outreach they needed before COVID, if they already did outreach with immigrants in mind, we wouldn’t be where we are,” Castro said by phone.

Some Georgia counties, such as DeKalb and Fulton, have provided adequate information and translation at testing sites, she said, but the state effort is “very decentralized.”

“We need to make sure there is more information available to all community members and provide translation services, whether it’s English to Spanish, Creole, Mandarin or Korean,” said Genny Castillo, a regional director at the nonprofit Southern Economic Advancement Project.

The lack of outreach in Spanish has contributed to huge infection rates in many states. In Durham County, North Carolina, the Hispanic population’s share of overall COVID-19 infections increased from 7% in March to 15% in April to 70% in May before peaking at 75% in June, said Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, the director for health equity at Duke University’s community health department.

Those figures demonstrated a disastrous cycle, she said. Latinos working essential jobs faced greater exposure to the virus early on, then came home to households where children, grandparents and cousins may live under one roof. In mixed-status households, where some family members fear any interaction with law enforcement could risk arrest and deportation, going to a testing site where a local sheriff was directing traffic or seeking help at a hospital seemed like a threat. That not only hastened the virus’s spread, but caused in many cases deadly delays in treatment.

“People are still arriving too late, when the disease is too advanced,” Martinez-Bianchi said.

People are still arriving too late, when the disease is too advanced.Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, Duke University

Public service announcements that allayed those concerns and communicated what to do in plain, spoken Spanish could dispel those rumors and make clear that immigration status would not be checked at testing sites or hospitals.

Not Just Spanish

Cruz said the risk of ICE arrest remains one of the most commonly asked questions she gets on the hotline. She’s done her best to ease those worries. But there are more troubling problems.

In some places where written Spanish information is provided, the language is too complex and requires a baseline understanding of health science to make sense to the average reader. Many immigrants from Central and South America who have called the hotline, speak indigenous dialects as their primary language, and cannot read or communicate easily in Spanish or English.

The lack of Spanish speakers at testing sites also leaves advocates like her in the awkward position of trying to translate by phone when they get to the appointments she helped them set up. That was the case with the man who walked 20 miles to get to a testing site. He kept her on the line to translate the entire interaction.

It’s a heavy burden for volunteer hotline operators and organizations whose budgets are already stretched thin providing services amid an economic depression.

Cruz’s group, the ACIJ, has spent its entire $50,000 emergency fund ― normally reserved for helping families separated by ICE raids ― on food and emergency financial aid to those in need. She said it expects the fund to be depleted this week. The group is now holding fundraisers and applying for grants.

“I tear up sometimes,” she said. “The whole experience has been very humbling.”

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