MATTAWA, Wash. – A federal investigation that forced a rural Eastern Washington farm town to provide bilingual translators could serve as a warning to other communities with Spanish-speaking residents.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it had reached an agreement with the town of Mattawa, requiring it to establish a list of interpreters and guidelines for their use as well as ensuring that vital municipal documents are translated into Spanish, among other things.
The agreement resolved two complaints accusing the town and police of failing to provide access to interpreters for Spanish-speaking residents who were victims of domestic violence.
Some say the agreement, believed to be the first of its kind in Washington state, could have far-reaching implications for other communities with growing Latino populations.
“We’re very similar to Bridgeport and Brewster and Mabton and many of the smaller communities in Lower Valley Yakima,” Mattawa Mayor Judy Esser said. “And it will be interesting to see if those communities will go through the same process.”
Mattawa sits about 140 miles southwest of Spokane in Grant County. According to 2000 census figures, Mattawa’s population is 2,609 and nearly 90 percent Hispanic. The same tally indicated that 83 percent of Hispanic residents older than 18 speak English less than “very well.”
Part of the Civil Rights Act, bolstered in 2000 by an executive order, mandates interpretation and translation be made available for people who are not English-proficient. That means all city services, including law enforcement, must be available in Spanish in places that have a high percentage of monolingual Spanish speakers.
For years, there were rumblings that such access wasn’t available in Mattawa. At a 2006 state Commission on Hispanic Affairs meeting held in the town, a group of women testified about long waits and general disinterest when they called 911 or when they went to local police.
A botched domestic violence investigation and the resulting complaint to the Department of Justice in 2005 prompted the agreement.
Maria Salazar, the Northwest regional vice president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, believes there are other places in Eastern Washington where monolingual Spanish speakers are being shortchanged on their right to access government.
“But you don’t often have, in the Hispanic community, advocates that they can trust and talk to,” said Salazar, whose group provides support and advocacy on Latino-justice issues.
“That is definitely something we would look at if those cases were brought to us,” she said. “I think Mattawa is not the only community that has that sort of situation occur.”
Mattawa officials expect it will cost the town about $4,000 this year, which Esser said is unfair because the federal government won’t chip in to cover it. But she believes the added services ultimately will be good for the town, especially from a law-enforcement perspective.
In the past two years, the Justice Department investigated Sunnyside’s City Council elections for compliance with the Voting Rights Act, and in 2004 it pushed Yakima County to create bilingual ballots.
Those actions, combined with the Mattawa investigation, suggest the Department of Justice is taking an interest in Eastern Washington, said Joaquin Avila, a visiting law professor at Seattle University and former president of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
“Clearly someone up there is watching things in this Eastern Washington area,” Avila said. “If I were a jurisdiction in that area I would certainly be attuned to that.”
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