As immigrant workers and families with low incomes across the country are disproportionately affected by the economic and health impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, state and local communities are stepping in to fill the gaps left by limited federal relief efforts. Not only do these efforts need to be available and tailored to immigrant community needs, but they also must focus on creating effective outreach to immigrant audiences.
With offices closed, community visits limited, and ongoing virus transmission concerns as cities reopen, government agencies and service providers should explore innovative communications channels to assist immigrant families.
Early in the crisis, we scanned the responses of 10 metropolitan areas with large immigrant populations in a variety of state immigration policy climates and identified some ways localities were working to communicate to immigrant audiences. From our observations, we find effective outreach with immigrant residents depends on three key principles: translation of materials into multiple languages, accessible and trustworthy messengers, and creative ways to transmit information.
1. Ensure information is available in multiple languages
Although in some areas of the country the primary foreign language spoken by residents is Spanish, localities must be prepared to offer translations beyond Spanish given the enormous and growing diversity of the immigrant and refugee population in many large cities, such as Houston and Atlanta, as well as in smaller towns, such as Akron and Omaha. Some cities and states moved quickly to make public health information on virus prevention and testing available in multiple languages. Both Chicago and Washington, DC, offered translations of key prevention and program information in languages most commonly spoken among the diverse local immigrant populations.
These cities and others producing crisis-relevant information in multiple languages, such as Houston and Seattle, likely relied on existing multilingual infrastructure. In other cities where this infrastructure does not already exist, limited resources can pose challenges to promoting language access.
Although some government agencies and nonprofits, such as those in the Southwest, routinely make information available in English and Spanish, others publish information only in English or rely solely on cheaper approaches, such as Google Translate, which can result in inaccurate or incomplete translations. Local leaders can repurpose multilingual materials from national organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the International Rescue Committee for general information.
2. Create accessible and trustworthy messaging
Providing information in residents’ native languages is only a small part of effective communication. The most helpful materials also use strong visuals and simple, clear language to communicate complex information. New York has used a stoplight graphic to communicate details on who and which health programs are affected by public charge concerns.
To build trust with immigrant communities, materials should clearly communicate which programs immigrants are eligible for by signaling that immigration status will not be considered and personal information not be shared. Close collaboration with immigrant-serving organizations that have trusting relationships with immigrant communities can help ensure government efforts are informed by appropriate linguistic and cultural knowledge and are more likely to reach disconnected families wary of government authorities. These organizations can advise on effective messaging for their communities, disseminate information, and implement government-funded programming.
3. Transmit information through creative platforms
Well-designed communication materials need to reach their audiences and be accessible on platforms that are easily and routinely accessed. Many families lack Wi-Fi access or home computers to access the internet and may have limited literacy, requiring service providers and government agencies to find creative ways to reach key audiences. Communities and organizations have used social media livestreams, Zoom conferencing, radio, and other telephone-based methods to communicate.
After the urgent initial weeks of the crisis, some localities have refined their approach to reach disconnected residents. In San Jose, local authorities conducted a survey of undocumented residents after finding that the Silicon Valley Strong Fund was depleted in three days without the funds reaching those most in need. With the survey, local leaders hoped to identify more effective strategies to reach immigrants who were not able to connect to the online portal and telephone resource when it was first announced. They learned that WhatsApp, telephone calls, text messages, and easy-to-digest graphics or short text messages were better methods of outreach.
Why prioritizing language access is critical to reaching all community members
Although cities have launched many innovative efforts to reach immigrant audiences during the pandemic, gaps in recovery remain large. Local agencies face enormous resource challenges, and language access may not be deemed a priority amid the many urgent and competing demands to address the complexity of the crisis. This crisis highlights the importance of investing in language access infrastructure to disseminate urgent information to all community members.
Moving forward, local leaders who want to ensure well-being and recovery in their communities need to consider intentional and thoughtful communication strategies to reach diverse immigrant communities.