Language Barriers & Perceptions of Bias: Ethnic Differences in Immigrant Encounters with the Welfare System

Article excerpt

This article demonstrates why research on immigrant language barriers should account for local variations in the way these barriers are experienced by different immigrant groups. It makes the argument that variations in language barriers experienced by immigrant groups are often reflective of differences in the local migration histories and socio-economic status of these groups. These themes are illustrated by discussing the findings of a comparative survey of welfare service barriers experienced by Haitian and Hispanic welfare clients in Miami-Dade county. Secondary data on South Florida migration patterns is also used to explain disparities in the bilingual fluency of welfare caseworkers, which had a significant impact on the service barriers experienced by both groups.

Keywords: language barriers, immigrant, socio-economic status, welfare service, Hispanic, Haitian, English fluency

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Prior research has shown that language barriers pose a formidable obstacle for immigrant welfare clients. Immigrants with poor English-language proficiency are more likely to go without health and childcare services (Kirkman-Liff and Mondragon 1991; Ku and Matani 2001; Schur and Albers 1996; Solis, Marks, Garcia, Shelton 1990; Suarez 1994) and are more likely to experience employment barriers which contribute to persistent recidivism (Aparicio 2004; Caceri and Quiroz 2004; Ng 2001). Tumlin and Zimmerman (2003) note, for example, that language barriers are one of the primary obstacles facing immigrant welfare leavers today and, as a result, are partly responsible for the fact that immigrants have been leaving the welfare rolls at a slower rate than native-born welfare clients.

These studies have played an invaluable role in placing the issue of immigrant language barriers at the center of research and policy debates on welfare-to-work issues. They have been especially effective in demonstrating that language barriers are among the most prominent barriers to self-sufficiency for the national welfare caseload. Despite these achievements, this research has tended to treat language barriers as an obstacle that is experienced the same way by most immigrant groups. It is also significant that, with few exceptions, the empirical research on this subject has focused on the experiences of Spanish-speaking welfare clients engaging welfare service centers that are managed and staffed by white, English-speaking government workers.

In this article, I point out that research on immigrant language barriers should begin to account for local variations in the way that language barriers are experienced by different immigrant groups. I also note that it is important to consider how language barriers can effect interactions between immigrant welfare clients and caseworkers who may also be racial or ethno-linguistic minorities. These issues are of special significance for urban centers that contain large, linguistically diverse immigrant populations.

Researching Language Barriers in Miami-Dade County

The observations offered here are drawn from a series of research studies that were conducted as part of a multi-state comparison of racial-ethnic disparities in welfare reform outcomes, conducted under the aegis of the Scholar-Practitioner Program of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. I was the research director for several studies that focused on welfare reform outcomes for Haitian migrants in Miami-Dade. I coordinated these studies with the supervision of the lead researchers of the Florida Scholar-Practitioner team, who were stationed at the Psychology Department of Florida International University.

This discussion draws, specifically, on two of the studies conducted under this program. The first was a series of field interviews that I conducted with twenty social service professionals (including welfare case workers, non-profit workers, and community advocates) about service barriers and service trends for Haitian immigrants. …

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