On April 25, several Ayudantes testified during the Council of the District of Coumbia’s Budget Oversight to demonstrate the importance of funding Ayuda’s services. Specifically, our team underscored the critical work supported by the Immigrant Justice Legal Services Grant and the Access to Justice (ATJ) Initiative.

As our partners at the DC Bar Foundation note, ATJ is facing a 67 percent decrease in funding for the next fiscal year – a budget cut that would have alarming consequences for Ayuda’s low-income immigrant clients and our low-income neighbors across D.C. Ayuda joins a myriad of community organizations in calling on the Mayor’s Office to restore Access to Justice funding at $31.7 million. 

Alongside the DC Values Coalition, we are also asking the Mayor’s Office and the D.C. Council for $7 million for IJLS to help legal service providers rise to meet the growing need for immigration legal services.

Full copies of Ayuda’s oral and written testimony are available below. Click to jump to testimony: 

Written Testimony As Filed – Marilyn Lovo, Language Access Director

Ayuda appreciates the opportunity to submit testimony to the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety regarding the vital role that the Access to Justice Initiative plays in ensuring that the District of Columbia has an effective safety net for all its residents. Today, I will speak about the Community Legal Interpreter Bank, a project run by Ayuda that results in equal access to legal services for District residents who are Deaf/Hard of Hearing or limited English proficient.  

Before I begin, as a member organization of the DC Language Access Coalition, I’d like to voice Ayuda’s support of the Language Access Enforcement Amendment of 2024. Government agencies that are found to be out of compliance with the Language Access Act of 2004 would receive a fine for failing to provide equal access and participation in public services, programs, and activities for DC residents who cannot or have limited capacity to communicate in English. 

Ayuda is a nonprofit organization that helps immigrants from across the world overcome obstacles to succeed and thrive in the United States. Since 1973, Ayuda has served more than 150,000 immigrants in the DC Metro area, empowering immigrants to access justice and transform their lives. Our services include legal representation, therapy, case management, advocacy, and language access.  

When the DC Council passed legislation creating the Access to Justice Initiative, the Council included a requirement that some of the Initiative’s funding should be used for a shared legal interpreter bank. For the last seventeen years, Ayuda’s Language Access Program has been home to that bank, which is called the Community Legal Interpreter Bank (CLIB).  

CLIB is a unique national model that has been extremely effective in creating equitable access to civil legal services for Deaf/Hard of Hearing and limited English proficient individuals. CLIB’s success can be attributed to the breadth of services that it offers, the efficiency of having a shared resource for dozens of legal service providers, and the degree to which it caters specifically to the needs of legal service providers and their clients. In a city as diverse as the District of Columbia, the populace cannot be equitably served without investing energy, expertise, and financial resources in language access.  

Organizations across the country regularly contact Ayuda looking to replicate our model in their cities. In DC, Ayuda worked with the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants (OVSJG) to replicate CLIB in the victim services setting. Our Victim Services Interpreter Bank trains interpreters to be trauma-informed and victim-centered. Ayuda has submitted testimony and will be speaking separately about that bank for victim services and the work that OVSJG is doing to support language access for victims of crime.  

According to census data, more than 32,000 individuals in the District over the age of 5 years old are limited-English proficient (LEP) or non-English proficient (NEP). This group constitutes approximately 5 percent of the city’s population.1 Among these residents of DC, the top four languages spoken are Spanish, Amharic, French, and Chinese.2 In addition, our city is home to a large concentration of Deaf/Hard of Hearing individuals, many of whom use sign language to communicate. More than 14,000 people in the District have a hearing difficulty.3 

CLIB trains professional interpreters to work with lawyers and their clients in an out of court setting. We train interpreters using a curriculum that we helped to develop, the “Language of Justice.” Interpreters learn how to maintain confidentiality, guard the attorney-client privilege, and avoid the unauthorized practice of law. CLIB then pays these professional, specially trained interpreters to go where they are needed, as requested by the more than 40 civil legal services providers in DC that use CLIB. Interpreters can meet with service providers and their clients in-person, over the phone, or over video.  

When one of our specially trained interpreters is not available, legal service providers may use on-demand telephonic interpretation through CLIB’s contracted third-party service. Written translation services are also available, allowing providers to create outreach materials in various languages and to ensure that written communication with a particular client is in the appropriate language. CLIB’s staff are experts in language access and provide training and technical assistance to the city’s civil legal service providers. The benefits of the Bank are free because of grant funding, including an award from the Access to Justice Initiative, administered by the DC Bar Foundation.  

This project reaches some of DC’s neediest residents by removing common obstacles that often prevent individuals from getting the help that they need. A limited English proficient or Deaf/Hard of Hearing DC resident might suffer without accessing available legal services for many reasons, including, but not limited to, fear of reprisal from an abuser or perpetrator, lack of information regarding the assistance that is available, shame or embarrassment, mistrust of lawyers or law enforcement (sometimes founded on past interactions in other countries), and lack of knowledge regarding legal rights. When a person cannot communicate in English, all the obstacles just mentioned are compounded. Such linguistically isolated individuals are extremely difficult to reach.  

CLIB breaks down the language barrier that stands in the way of accessing help for limited-English proficient and Deaf/Hard of Hearing individuals. Each time a legal client receives culturally appropriate services in his or her language, faith in the system is restored. That client will relay to members of his or her community that help is available, even for those who cannot speak English. CLIB’s success has demonstrated the importance of ensuring that legal services are accessible to all residents, regardless of the languages that they use to communicate.  

CLIB has grown to serve 44 different organizations that provide civil legal services to DC residents. There are 117 interpreters who contract with CLIB, working in 25 different languages, including Spanish, Amharic, French, Chinese, and American Sign Language. Each interpreter has completed our multi-day “Language of Justice” training created especially for this project.  

During the last fiscal year, we were able to offer the “Language of Justice” and train 15 American Sign Language interpreters. Additionally, CLIB provided specially trained interpreters on more than 400 occasions, provided on-demand telephonic interpretation through LanguageLine in more than 7,500 instances, and arranged for the translation of 440 documents. Most requests were for assistance with speakers of Spanish, Amharic, and French. We served clients living throughout the city, in all 8 wards. CLIB helped service providers reach a variety of clients in innumerable ways, assisting countless attorneys in conducting intake, holding client meetings, and preparing their clients for court and administrative hearings. 

We train legal services staff regularly, not only on language access, best practices when working with interpreters, and navigating CLIB’s services and systems, but on complicated technological solutions, including hosting remote meetings in which multiple languages will be used on separate audio channels. When simultaneous interpretation is requested for on-site assignments, we provide simultaneous equipment, free of cost to the requesting organization, for the interpreters staffing the assignment and all other assignment participants to use. We maintain an online scheduling system which makes it possible for CLIB staff to efficiently process the high volume of requests. It also makes it so that the nonprofit staff representatives who use CLIB and interpreters who accept CLIB assignments can access CLIB in an automated and user-friendly manner. We also have a policy that in-person assignments are only offered to interpreters who are up to date on their COVID-19 vaccinations. These measures, which ensure that stakeholders have positive experiences accessing CLIB, require copious amounts of staff time.  

After 17 years of working with the legal services community to ensure equity for limited English proficient and Deaf/Hard of Hearing individuals, the demand for language access continues to grow. CLIB has normalized serving clients in languages other than English. There is also a larger diversity of languages represented in requests. CLIB must continue offering the “Language of Justice,” training more interpreters who may then be invited to accept CLIB assignments, to ensure the best possible fulfillment rates. In addition, we would like to provide continuing education trainings for the interpreters with whom we contract who already took the “Language of Justice.” Finally, we aim to also provide entry level training on interpretation for bilingual individuals who are looking to enter the profession of interpretation.  

Mayor Muriel Browser delivered her fiscal year 2025 budget and financial plan which proposes a 67% cut (a $21.211 million cut) to the Access to Justice Initiative’s appropriation. CLIB is already having difficulty meeting the need and demand for language access services at its current funding level, resulting in CLIB restricting services more strictly, translating less documents than in prior years and instituting allocations for its top users. A cut of this magnitude would increase the vulnerability of thousands of District residents, particularly that of immigrants and individuals with disabilities, some who are limited English proficient and Deaf and already underserved. CLIB provides excellent language access services and technical assistance to the 44 different organizations it serves and essential, specialized training to interpreters. The need for language access in legal services has never been greater and will continue to grow. We must build on our progress to avoid abandoning linguistically isolated communities in need of legal services. Last year, the Council saved the Access to Justice Initiative from a 60% cut. Ayuda joins the legal services community in requesting the Council’s support in providing the Access to Justice’s request of $31.7 million. 

The Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants and the DC Bar Foundation, as the grantors for the Access to Justice Initiative, play a vital role in ensuring equal access to justice for all DC residents. CLIB’s work helps to ensure that outreach by legal services organizations in DC is conducted in various languages, that when limited English proficient and Deaf/Hard of Hearing individuals do seek help they are met in their languages, and that our city’s resources devoted to equal justice are open to everyone. We ask that the DC Council and the Mayor continue to support the critical role that the Access to Justice Initiative plays in strengthening the city’s safety net.  

Oral Testimony Transcript – Beatriz Ortiz, Immigration Managing Attorney, DC

Good afternoon, Chairperson Pinto and members of the Committee. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Beatriz Ortiz, and I am the Immigration Managing Attorney at the Ayuda DC Office.  

Ayuda has been serving immigrant communities for over 50 years. Ayuda offers a full range of immigration, family law, and consumer fraud assistance, social services, and language access support for low-income immigrants from anywhere in the world. Ayuda’s clients includes survivors of human trafficking, domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and other violent crimes. Our low-barrier services ensure that D.C immigrant survivors, who are often hesitant to access resources, have a safe and reliable place to seek help. 

My testimony today will focus on the uniquely essential community resource that is the Access to Justice Initiative. Access to Justice funding, administered by the DC Bar Foundation, is critical to Ayuda’s ability to maintain our essential services. This funding supports our Recently Arrived Immigrants Program and Project END.  

Our Recently Arrived Immigrants Program provides comprehensive legal services, including consultations, brief services, and extended representation to recently arrived immigrants, as well as legal education events and training to local services providers. The need for expert legal counsel for newly arriving migrants continues to increase, outpacing our capacity. 

Project END is a program unique to Ayuda which combats immigration legal fraud. Amid constant changes in immigration political rhetoric, law, and policy, we anticipate continued confusion and increased consumer fraud by unscrupulous non attorneys. We are also seeing an increased amount of immigration legal fraud among newly arrived migrants.  

The proposed budget cut to the Access to Justice Initiative will have a devasting impact on our services. Reduced funding will jeopardize our ability to provide services that promote public safety and community resilience. Without critical legal assistance, newly arrived migrants will continue living on the margins due to lack of legal immigration status and work authorization. This will work to further isolate them, increase their reliance on city resources like emergency shelters, and make them vulnerable to immigration legal fraud, which we will be unable to prevent and address if we lose critical Project END funding.  

A 67% cut to this funding pool at a time of increased need among underserved communities is simply untenable. As the FY24 report from this Committee stated, cuts will ultimately end up costing the District more as lack of legal assistance will make DC residents more reliant on other, more expensive District services. The Access to Justice Initiative helps ensure our that immigrant neighbors have the chance to thrive and maintain a good life for themselves and their families. We join the Access to Justice Commission in urging the Council to meet our request for level funding at $31.7M. 

On behalf of Ayuda, we appreciate your time today, and I am happy to answer any questions from the Committee. Thank you. 

Oral Testimony Transcript – Sandra Benavente, Advocacy Manager 

Good afternoon; thank you Chairperson White and members of the Committee for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Sandra Benavente and I am Ayuda’s Advocacy Manager. Since 2020, Ayuda has received Immigrant Justice Legal Services (IJLS) Grant funding, administered by the Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs, for both our language access and immigrant legal services programs. My testimony today will focus on Ayuda’s legal services. Increased funding from IJLS is of critical importance as we rise to meet the growing demand for culturally-specific immigration legal services across the District.  

As immigrant residents of the District face an ever-changing legal landscape, access to legal counsel is more critical than ever. Ayuda’s immigration legal services help low-income immigrants identify available immigration benefits, navigate the complex bureaucracy that controls access to immigration benefits, and present their case successfully. In FY23, with IJLS funding, Ayuda’s attorneys hosted 4 Know Your Rights Presentations, with 122 attendees receiving vital legal information. Ayuda conducted 53 legal screenings and offered 53 brief legal consultations. Ayuda’s staff and pro bono attorneys provided full legal representations for DC residents in 215 matters.  

Ayuda is committed to ensuring our organization can continue to respond effectively to the communities we serve, as demand for our services continues to grow. The District continues to be a primary destination for newly arriving immigrants, many of them unaccompanied minors, immigrants seeking asylum and Temporary Protected Status (TPS), and more fleeing high levels of violence, crime, natural disasters, food insecurity, and poverty. Ayuda has been part of the community-led response to the sharp increase in need, providing migrants with brief legal advice and counsel.  

Beyond initial legal services, newly arriving immigrants who choose to stay in DC need representation in their legal matters and assistance in applying for work permits. Helping both our new and long-term resident immigrant neighbors find pathways to legal status and financial stability will cost the District less in the long run, as this stability translates into decreased dependency on other more costly government services, as well as increased contributions through taxes.  

Ayuda joins the DC Values Coalition in asking the Council to increase IJLS funding in FY25, so that our legal services programs can ensure that more immigrants successfully navigate the legal system. We respectfully request an allocation of $7 million, and for the program to provide organizations with multi-year grants as well as offer support for complementary non-legal services. Increased support in the form of multi-year funding will help ensure our mission of helping immigrants thrive remains sustainable for years to come. With increased funding, our legal services program will be able to better respond to the increased need as well as the increased costs associated with providing our services.  

Ayuda looks forward to continuing to count on the support of the Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs to help immigrants access justice and thereby access educational and workforce opportunities, safety, and stability for themselves and their families. Thank you for your time today.  

Oral Testimony Transcript – Arlene Galvan Mariotti, Senior Language Access Coordinator

Good afternoon, Chairperson White and members of the Committee. My name is Arlene Galvan Mariotti, and I am a Senior Language Access Coordinator at Ayuda. Ayuda is grateful for the opportunity to testify before the Committee on Recreation, Libraries, and Youth Affairs in support of increased funding for the Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs’ Immigration Justice Legal Services Grant Program (“IJLS”). For 51 years, Ayuda has served more than 150,000 immigrants in the District and surrounding areas. Ayuda helps vulnerable immigrants in our neighborhoods access justice and transform their lives by providing legal, social, and language access services. This comprehensive approach breaks down barriers, helps those in need, and makes our communities stronger. In my testimony today, I will focus on our language access services, which are rendered to IJLS grantee organizations and their immigrant clients through the Community Legal Interpreter Bank, also known as “CLIB”. CLIB is administered by Ayuda’s Language Access Program and provides specially trained interpreters to public interest lawyers and their clients. Through our language access program and CLIB in particular, Ayuda trains professional interpreters on how to work with lawyers and their clients in an out-of-court setting. Translation services are also available under the grant, allowing providers to create both client-specific and outreach materials in various languages and to ensure that written communication with a particular client is in the appropriate language. These benefits of the bank are free to IJLS grantees because the program has dedicated funding for providing professional language access services. 

In the last few years, Ayuda and other DC legal services organizations have seen a sharp increase in what was already high demand for immigration legal services, due to a variety of factors. Some of these factors include changes in immigration policies by the previous and current administration that have created uncertainty and confusion; another factor to consider is our response to the large influx of migrants bussed from border states to the District in 2022 and 2023. This ever-changing legal and political landscape makes access to legal counsel to help navigate the immigration system more critical than ever. Meeting the legal services needs of immigrant residents is often accompanied by the need for interpretation and/or document translation services to effectively communicate with clients who are Limited or Non-English Proficient (N/LEP) and Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing (DHH) 

To meet this growing need for language access services, Ayuda has relied in part on funding through IJLS. Since fiscal year 2023, CLIB has provided local, specially trained interpreters to IJLS grantee organizations on 581occasions. These interpreted meetings range from client-attorney meetings to livestreamed Know Your Rights trainings. In this time, the CLIB also translated 318 documents for clients of IJLS grantee organizations. The aforementioned interpretation and translation services were provided in 23 different languages. Ayuda has also conducted trainings and created resources for IJLS grantees that will help their staff members who are utilizing CLIB to know how to access our requesting system and work with legal interpreters. These services have impacted over 2,000 immigrants living in DC in the last year and a half alone. These statistics to do not capture what the IJLS has been able to accomplish in years prior, nor do they capture grantees’ full need for language services, as many requests are not filled due to funding limitations. To fill the gap, Ayuda relies on unrestricted funding and other grant programs to provide some interpretation and translation services to IJLS grantee organizations. Even once Ayuda has taken those measures, some requests go unfilled and IJLS grantees do not have the full language access support that they need. Continuing to meet growing community needs will require additional funding in order to allow us to continue to serve clients. One thing that makes IJLS unique and extremely helpful to grantees is the multi-year grant program. For example, with the help of IJLS, immigrants living in DC and pursuing legal services can count on receiving free, low-barrier help for years to come. As community needs and immigration policies shift, the longevity of this grant program is crucial for the success and vitality of countless immigrants and their families.  

It is abundantly clear that the District’s residents are in urgent need of high-quality immigration legal and language access services. The absence of such services, available for free or at affordable rates, leaves DC residents vulnerable not only to loss of status (including loss of authorization to work – with profound effects on District businesses as well as District families) but also to immigration legal services fraud, commonly known as notario fraud, which Ayuda works to prevent and redress through our unique Project END program supported in part by IJLS funds. Ayuda therefore respectfully requests that the Council support an increase to $7 million in the Mayor’s proposed IJLS budget and the MOLA budget for Community Development Grants in order to make high-quality immigration legal and language access services available to District residents at this very critical moment and beyond. 

For questions regarding Ayuda’s advocacy, please reach out to Advocacy Manager Sandra Benavente at [email protected]