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Immigrant Groups Push For Non-English Speakers To Have A Say As Texas Prepares To Redraw Political Districts

Two people walk through the Capitol rotunda.
Gabriel C. Pérez

Non-English speakers say language barriers have made it difficult to weigh in on the state's redistricting process. Latino and Asian American groups are working to change that as Texas lawmakers prepare to redraw political districts this year.

Shirley Ronquillo is the cofounder of a resident-led civic group called the Houston Department of Transformation. She lives in a part of unincorporated Harris County that needs help with a lot of basic things.

Flooding is a reoccurring problem. The area is a food desert, and clean water isn’t easy to come by.

Ronquillo said the community frequently needs to boil their water to avoid getting sick, but boil-water notices usually go unnoticed among the predominately Spanish-speaking residents.

“[The water company] only release notices in English,” she said.

Ronquillo said the community also finds it difficult to figure out who to hold responsible when things like this go wrong.

“There is a lack of a lot of things in this community," she said, "and, to be honest, we are a very disengaged community because we have a hard a time figuring who does what.

Ronquillo said she wants to make sure her community is drawn into a political district that gives residents more of a voice. But she’s been running into a familiar problem as state lawmakers hold virtual public input hearings.

“When I called the [Senate Redistricting] Committee to see if my neighbors who speak Spanish could give their testimony in Spanish, I was told there was no interpreter support,” she said. “It’s really frustrating.”

Ronquillo said she was told that if a committee member speaks Spanish, they can usually translate. But that's not a reliable system.

Latinos are set to become the largest population group in Texas in the next few years. Immigrants from Asian countries, meanwhile, make up the fastest growing population in the state.

“If you are coming here as an immigrant, you are not used to how the government works. ... And I think it’s just an added layer that complicates the opportunity to be represented fairly for folks."
Ashley Cheng, AAPI Redistricting Coalition

Ronquillo said there is no way to ensure the new political districts will be fair if the communities responsible for the state’s growth aren't included in the process.

Ashley Cheng is an organizer with the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Redistricting Coalition. She said it’s already a lot of work to get these communities to take part in a political system that is new to them.

“You know, if you are coming here as an immigrant, you are not used to how the government works — how voting works here, how redistricting works and what that is,” she said. “And I think it’s just an added layer that complicates the opportunity to be represented fairly for folks.”

Cheng’s group sent redistricting officials a letter asking them to accommodate speakers and translators for members of the community who speak Vietnamese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Urdu, Hindi, and Korean. They were able to get those accommodations in the latest redistricting hearings, she said.

Cheng said the process requires a lot of work from groups like hers’. She said she hopes things become more accessible as state lawmakers get closer to actually proposing new political districts. They must wait for the federal government to release census data.

“We still do feel a bit of an inconvenience, though, and there is a lot that we have to do ourselves,” Cheng said. “Ideally we would have systems that made it accessible for all to be able to get involved and testify.”

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Ashley Lopez covers politics and health care. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.
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