The United States has long been described as the ‘melting pot’ of nations with regard to its diverse ethnicities within the population. Understandably, with this ‘melting pot’ status comes significant public and political debate regarding the topic of immigration in the United States.
Based on data from the United States Census Bureau and the Department of Homeland Security, approximately 61 million immigrants currently reside in the United States, with an estimated 15.7 million living here illegally. To put in perspective how rapidly the population of people immigrating to the United States has grown, recent data shows that the number of immigrants and their children has increased six times faster than the total population from 1970 to 2015; that’s 353 percent versus 59 percent. 
Faced with such astonishing data, one might wonder where exactly are the majority of people immigrating from? Comprising the nation’s largest ethnic minority group, approximately 55 million Hispanic people are living in the United States, with nearly 20 million of those being foreign-born. Of those 20 million, an estimated 12 million people have emigrated from Mexico. While Mexican immigrants make up more than half our nation’s foreign-born Hispanic population, other countries that contribute to these numbers are Cuba, el Salvador, Guatemala, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic, to name a few.
As diverse as the countries that these immigrants hail from, so are the lives that they develop upon settling in the United States. There are many common misconceptions surrounding the Hispanic immigrant population in this country. People tend to forget that, as with any ethnic group, there are vast differences among the population in terms of economic status, education, and political views. Not all Hispanic immigrants live at the poverty level, speak only Spanish, or are uneducated and undocumented.
Too often people assume that the words immigrant and undocumented are one in the same, especially when it comes to the Hispanic community. While there are undocumented Hispanic immigrants living in the United States, the majority, are in fact, here legally. In reality, only about 18% of the 55 million Hispanic people living in this country, are here illegally4 . Whether here legally or illegally, being a Hispanic immigrant often comes with attached to stereotypes of being poverty-stricken, uneducated, or unemployed. In actuality, our country sees more and more Hispanic immigrants every year completing college degrees, starting successful businesses, and positively contributing to the economy in a big way. After all, most immigrants come to the United States seeking a better life and more opportunities with a serious drive to succeed. Consider Adriana Ocampo, a Colombian born immigrant who came to the United States as a teenager, and today works as the Director of the New Frontiers Program at NASA. Her first words when arriving in the United States were, “Where’s NASA?” She came to the United States with a dream and says this about what led her to find success, “My parents always taught us to never give up, and your dreams will come true. And coming to this country – the country of dream makers.”
While many Hispanic immigrants achieve great success upon emigrating to the United States, undeniably, being an immigrant presents an immense amount of challenges; navigating a foreign culture, adapting to new customs, learning a new language, obtaining employment, securing appropriate housing, and accessing healthcare. While all of these challenges can make assimilation extremely difficult, overcoming language barriers is often the most burdensome. Language barriers have an implicit impact on each and every challenge that a non-English speaking immigrant faces. Whether it is discussing a rental agreement with a potential landlord or filling out a job application that is seemingly incomprehensible, non-English speaking Hispanic immigrants face numerous language-related struggles upon entering the United States.
While about 62% of the Hispanic population in the United States speaks fluent (or nearly fluent) English, this percentage drops significantly when specifically considering Hispanic immigrants, with nearly 60% speaking only Spanish. Aside from the obvious challenges that non-English speaking immigrants face as they attempt to adjust to life in a new country, the inability to communicate with English speaking residents often perpetuates common misconceptions and stereotypes. It is all too common for non-English speakers to be met with hostility and frustration when interacting with those who speak only English, furthering the divide that exists between immigrants and natural born citizens.
While most newcomers to the United States understand that learning English would grant them exponential opportunities in terms of education and economic stability, not to mention easing the transition into a new country, finding the time and assistance to do so is often impossible. Non-English speakers often find themselves isolated within their new communities of English speaking residents, making their efforts to integrate and learn the language even more difficult. However, non-English speaking children generally have an easier time learning the language with the help of ESL programs in schools and the sheer fact that they are immersed in the language due to the volume of time spent in English speaking classrooms. Adult immigrants on the other hand face immense challenges in learning English, as many work long hours and do not have the time or the resources to dedicate to acquiring a new language. This is where we see the language barrier begin to divide not only communities, but individual households as well.
As non-English speaking communities continue to grow, it is important to examine the potentially life-threatening obstacles that exist for non-English speakers, one of the most profound issues involving appropriate medical care and coverage. With an estimated 15 million Hispanic people living in the United States who speak little to no English, there is an urgent need for better translation services in the medical field. Cultural and language barriers are not only frustrating for both the patient and the medical professionals, but they can often lead to catastrophic misdiagnoses and treatment errors. Miscommunication within the medical field can have severe consequences such as patients not understanding and therefore failing to follow treatment regimens correctly, patients agreeing to procedures without fully comprehending the risks, or doctors ordering dangerous or unnecessary tests due to poor understanding of their patient’s symptoms. Even more dangerous than the miscommunication issues that non-English speakers face when interacting with medical professionals is the fact that many are discouraged from seeking medical treatment altogether due to language barriers that they might encounter. Avoiding preventative medical care can be extremely detrimental, especially for those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale who are generally more prone to certain diseases.
A prime example of common medical miscommunication comes from an article published on the Public Safety Network sharing the story of a 10-month old girl taken to the doctor by her non-English speaking parents. At the time of their visit, there were no translators or bilingual staff available except for a nurse who spoke very limited and broken Spanish. The parents were told that their daughter was suffering from ‘low-blood’, given a prescription, and sent on their way. Believing that they were following the advised dosage, the parents administered the medication after picking it up from the pharmacy (which also had no interpreter or Spanish speaking staff), only to find that their daughter had become profoundly ill. Upon taking her to a nearby emergency department, it was determined that the parents had inadvertently overdosed the medication. Most likely, this error was largely due to the parent’s inability to fully understand the directions, which were given in mainly English.
Another situation further illustrating the issues that can result from language barriers within the medical field occurred at Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis, Maryland, sadly, with fatal consequences. When a non-English speaking Hispanic male entered the ER in 2012, he managed to express stomach pain, vomiting, and shortness of breath as his symptoms to the medical staff. The Medical Center proceeded to run a multitude of tests and procedures on him such as blood tests, CT scans, and even imposing a catheter. Unfortunately, over the two-day period that this man was treated at the hospital, no one discussed the fact that his lungs and abdomen were filling up with fluid and may likely have fatal results. It wasn’t until an hour before he died that anyone discussed his condition and care plan with him in Spanish, the only language that he understood.
Situations such as the abovementioned happen every single day in the medical community, often due to miscommunication stemming from language barriers. Equipping medical facilities with qualified medical interpreters is one solution to this pressing issue, though many hospitals hesitate to hire interpreters due to their exceptionally high fees. Issues often arise when family members or medical staff attempt to translate in an effort to ease communication between doctor and patient. While these efforts come with good intentions, they often result in major medical errors and should be avoided. The saying ‘lost in translation’ is quite applicable to situations such as these; medical and health terminology is incredibly finite and requires precise translation that only professionally trained interpreters can guarantee.
Another practical solution to help ease language based miscommunication in the medical field is to provide patients with translated health materials. Encouraging medical facilities to provide educational pamphlets and brochures that have been translated into Spanish can serve to not only bridge the language gap but also to help educate immigrants on health issues that they may not be privy to.
For many Hispanic immigrants, language barriers are not the only obstacles that deter them from seeking medical and health care services. Around one quarter of the Hispanic population are undocumented, deeming them ineligible for Medicaid or other government-based benefits. For legal immigrants, the options are not much better, as many work in low-income jobs or are self-employed, disqualifying them from public health programs. Unfortunately, this generally means that they do not make enough money to afford decent healthcare, leaving them in a bit of a catch 22 situation. Throw language barriers on top of all of this, and it is the perfect recipe to simply avoid medical and health care altogether.
To assume that all Hispanic immigrants cannot afford proper medical care or simply choose to not seek it out is false; however, statistically speaking, Hispanics are a greatly underserved population in the medical community. While there are numerous factors that impact how Hispanics utilize the health and medical services available to them, the barriers that non-English speaking immigrants face in terms of language are undeniable. Miscommunications with healthcare professionals due to language differences cause thousands of dangerous medical complications every year. In order to better serve the diverse group of patients seeking medical attention in the United States, healthcare facilities urgently need for breaking dangerous language barriers that complicate the services that they provide.