Houston language activists race to keep their one small request from disappearing in Capitol bedlam
By Alexa Ura, The Texas Tribune
“Houston language activists race to keep their one small request from disappearing in Capitol bedlam” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
This story is the second in a series about Texans seeking to have their voices heard during the legislative session. For the next few months, The Texas Tribune will follow 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.
To reach the Capitol doors, the four advocates had to navigate around the Texas Southern University marching band and past a gaggle of schoolchildren in bright, color-coordinated T-shirts.
They scurried up the steps and reached the east entrance, only to find themselves stuck behind two large mariachi ensembles — one in navy blue charro outfits, the other in bright red — lugging their violins and guitarrones through security.
It was the sort of weekday morning cacophony common on a spring day when the Texas Legislature is reaching full swing.
Somehow, the four activists from Woori Juntos, a community group serving Houston’s Korean community, had to find a way to break through the noise.
They had just four days to clear the first hurdles in their quest to win over a majority of 181 legislators to their cause: making it easier for Texans who speak no or limited English to communicate with state agencies and access crucial services.
The 140-day session was already two months old on this Tuesday, and a crucial deadline was approaching: Friday was the cutoff for lawmakers to file bills. The Woori Juntos contingent still needed to see their hopes drafted into a formal bill, and secure a sponsor in the House or Senate, preferably both, to put it into play.
Thousands of advocates descend on the Legislature during the relatively short window every two years during which lawmakers may be convinced to help improve the lives of Texans. Well-paid lobbyists and established interest groups already know how to get in the door. It’s harder for homegrown optimists like the small staff of Woori Juntos, asking to be heard amid a crowded chorus of requests.
Success requires persistence, comfortable shoes and more than a little luck.
“I’m a little anxious, but I believe,” said Nicole Ma, a member of Woori Juntos policy staff, as they moved through security. “It’s going to be a busy week.”
The idea of pushing for legislation to improve language access for Texas’ populations that don’t speak English or Spanish had been born back in Houston, Woori Juntos’ home base. From its office within the Korean Community Center, the group’s small staff had helped a growing number of Spring Branch neighbors overcome the gap left by the state’s current language options. The group’s name means “we rise together” in a combination of Korean and Spanish.
Since formally establishing in the summer of 2021, Woori Juntos’ client roster had been filled by mostly older residents who spoke very little English and needed the group to translate and interpret so they could apply for state programs like Medicaid or food stamps.
The organization’s clients represent just a sliver of the nearly 60,000 Texans who speak Korean at home, at least half of them with limited English proficiency, and an even smaller portion of the hundreds of thousands of Texans who speak languages other than English or Spanish at home.
It was an issue that could be solved at the state level because the need might be anywhere, said Steven Wu, Woori Juntos’ organizing and policy manager. So the group set its sights on the Capitol.
“This is one of the easiest barriers to remove,” Wu said.
Texans with limited English can already get some language assistance from the state. While applications for state health and social services programs come in only English and Spanish, the health commission contracts with a language line service to provide support in more than 150 languages. But that service is sometimes more theoretical than functional.
Texans calling the state benefits helpline can ask a “live agent” for an interpreter, according to a commission spokesperson. But they must first get through an automated system with limited language options. It asks English speakers to dial 1 and Spanish speakers to dial 2. A third option allows callers to hit zero for other languages — an announcement that’s recorded in English — but then they’ll hear options only in Vietnamese, Farsi, Somali, Arabic, Mandarin and French.
Woori Juntos believed the state could translate program applications and important documents into key languages beyond English and Spanish. They also wanted a more formal language access plan for the state’s Health and Human Services Commission to step up its efforts widening language options.
By January, Woori Juntos had stitched its ideas together into a finished proposal. A four-person team began embarking on regular three-hour drives to Austin to meet with lawmakers.
A first major hurdle
Things were slow enough early in the legislative session that Woori Juntos wrangled sit-down meetings with legislators or their staffers. The team crisscrossed the Capitol’s polished floors and partisan lines handing out glossy printed copies of their policy memo. In meetings, their presentation was practiced but conversational.
An affable and confident public speaker, Sarah Syed, the group’s senior community organizer, would typically introduce Woori Juntos and lay out their policy priorities. Ma, equal parts bubbly and serious, would detail the difficulties faced by Woori Juntos’ clients trying to navigate life in a second language. She’d make the pitch personal, talking about the toll language obstacles take on her own parents, Chinese immigrants who have lived in the United States for 30 years but still feel shame and embarrassment asking for help. Wu, a chemical engineer turned community advocate, would close with data showing how limited language access foments social inequities, and make the ask for the lawmaker to champion their policy proposal through legislation.
“We have 160-plus languages in the state of Texas, and taking the initiative to move [language access] a little bit further … is a huge move to increase access to health care,” Syed told a legislative aide in one early meeting. “Language should never be a barrier to access.”
But being heard at the Capitol didn’t come easy. Working through the state legislative process for the first time, the Woori Juntos team was learning the Legislature’s inner workings as they learned their way around the massive building.
And they were doing it on their own dime. For their first visits to the Capitol, they’d wake up at 4:30 a.m. in Houston, carpool to Austin in time for morning office visits and head home at day’s end to avoid paying for hotel rooms.
Woori Juntos’ search for a champion got help early on from the office of state Rep. Ann Johnson, a Houston Democrat whose legislative director spent an hour listening to the group’s pitch and offering feedback.
Most importantly, the staffer offered to submit their policy memo to the Texas Legislative Council, the state agency responsible for turning ideas into technical legislative language. Council staff would write their bill, helping them over the first major hurdle.
Down to the wire
Weeks passed after their proposal was placed in the hands of bill drafters, but the office was backed up with a flood of legislative requests and Woori Juntos found itself in a holding pattern.
The group continued to meet with lawmakers’ offices, mostly focusing on House lawmakers who worked on health and human services issues. They secured a list of maybes from several offices, but lawmakers wanted to review the actual draft language before agreeing to file the bill.
As the legislative session got busier, Woori Juntos’ face time with legislative staffers became shorter and shorter. They were increasingly competing with other constituent groups, volunteer activists and paid lobbyists for a small measure of attention.
And then it was the Tuesday before the Friday deadline, and Woori Juntos was still without a bill to show around.
They’d gotten to the Austin area on Sunday, slept at a colleague’s home in Pflugerville and showed up early at the Capitol to begin the final push ahead of the bill filing deadline.
More and more, they were being told that lawmakers had already filed all the bills they planned to carry. Or that it was getting too close to the deadline to consider additional legislation. One lawmakers’ office gently suggested they should look beyond their aspirations to get a bill and work with the health commission outside the legislative process.
In the increasingly clamorous Capitol, the Woori Juntos folks squeezed past other groups bearing their own causes. They shared an elevator with a contingent of Texas Southern University alums visiting legislative offices. In the halls, they were trailed by medical professionals in white coats doing the rounds with lawmakers. On the south steps, groups gathered to commemorate Texas Muslim Capitol Day. The Senate gallery was a sea of lime green and pink as members of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority were recognized during their advocacy day.
Woori Juntos felt the weight of their community’s needs as they waited anxiously for the draft language they needed. The group of advocates themselves brought to the Capitol a representation of the state’s Asian diaspora — a segment of the state population that hasn’t always been reflected in its halls of power, where most lawmakers are white.
On their way out for a midday break, the brassy notes of trumpets and the strums of violins called out from the Capitol’s rotunda. They stopped to watch as one of the mariachis they had followed through security began performing a song about life being beautiful.
“We needed that,” Ma said.
A final sprint
Wednesday morning, the Capitol grounds were quieter, the urgency growing.
Ma monitored her email, hoping for positive news. They visited more offices. Mid-morning, they paused at a wooden bench so Ma could send another email while Wu looked up a senator’s biography.
Staring at her laptop screen, she gasped.
“We have the draft back!” Ma read excitedly. She had been tired that morning, still adjusting to a different sleeping rhythm while away from home, but suddenly her face was a portrait of joy.
They pored over the three pages of draft legislation that embodied their goal then began the sprint for a sponsor. Emails zipped off to lawmakers that had been marked as maybes. They quickly coordinated which offices to prioritize, opting to divide and conquer instead of roving as a unit as they had on previous visits.
It fell to Ma to stop in at the office of their top choice to sponsor the legislation — Dallas-area Rep. Toni Rose, a well-respected lawmaker with experience on health and human services issues. Ma’s brown cowboy boots clipped against the floor as she hurried past Capitol regulars, lobbyists and gadflys who lawmakers knew by name.
She was in and out of the office in just a few minutes. It was bad news. Rose’s office said she no longer had capacity to take on their bill.
The Woori Juntos staff spent the rest of the afternoon traversing the Capitol searching for a sponsor as the filing deadline drew ever closer. A follow-up chat with the staff of state Sen. José Menéndez, a San Antonio Democrat, seemed particularly promising.
Around 5 p.m., the tired group paused at another bench in the basement to take stock. They had visited more than 15 offices that day.
Opting for a seat on the floor in front of her colleagues, Syed looked at her phone as it lit up with a notification. It was a text message from Menéndez’s office.
“We’re going to file it,” the text read.
The group broke into celebratory screams and rushed to the senator’s office to thank his staff. They ran into Menéndez, who told them about his own experiences translating for his parents, deciphering words he didn’t know at 12 years old — terms like mortgage — to help them make sense of their world.
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Still needing someone to file their bill on the House side, reinforcements arrived on Thursday. The rest of the Woori Juntos team and other community members came in from Houston for a day of action as part of a broader collective of Asian American and Pacific Islander advocacy groups coming to the Capitol.
The policy team set up for their events and helped guide the new visitors. On the southwest lawn, they helped set up a press conference and performances by members of Woori Juntos who had been practicing a traditional Korean protest song that has been passed on for generations. The song, they said, was a way to show how they were passing the movement forward.
But that left little time for the policy team to find a House sponsor as the Friday deadline neared.
Back at Johnson’s office, they were told the representative was at capacity for bills she could carry. Up one floor, they walked into the office of state Rep. Penny Morales Shaw, a Houston Democrat and one of the earliest supporters of their cause. Her staff agreed on the spot to file their bill.
By Friday morning, Senate Bill 2080 was officially in the legislative system. Its companion, House Bill 5166, came in later that day.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Ma recalled the significance of the Korean protest song that rang through the Capitol lawn the day before and how it reminded her that progress requires continuous movement.
Woori Juntos went into this effort knowing it could take multiple legislative sessions to see their proposal become policy. Getting a bill filed, she said, served as recognition of the paths they were working to open.
“I think it’s just another reminder of this is this is important work,” Ma said. “We’re just really incredibly grateful because we know that these are stories that are being heard and these are things that will continue to empower us.”
Though they had cleared yet another hurdle, the staggering odds they still faced were clear by the end of Friday when the total number of bills filed hit 7,865 — a record for any legislative session in the Legislature’s 177-year history. Only a small fraction will even be considered by a committee, a necessary step to reach a vote.
Even fewer would make it to the governor’s desk to become law.
Woori Juntos would start the next week trying to convince other lawmakers to sign on to their bills as co-authors. And they’d begin trainings for their members on how to testify at the Capitol during the committee hearings they hope will come next.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/03/16/language-access-texas-woori-juntos/.
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