At a Korean community center in Houston, the struggle immigrant Texans face with language barriers is clear

Woori Juntos service coordinator Terry Yun listens and provides translation services for a couple at the Korean Community Center in the Spring Branch district of Houston on Feb. 23, 2023. Woori Juntos, meaning we rise together in a combination of Korean and Spanish, is a local community group working to eliminate language barriers to health and social services. (Annie Mulligan For The Texas Tribune, Annie Mulligan For The Texas Tribune)

This story is the first in a series about Texans seeking to have their voices heard during the legislative session. For the next few months, The Texas Tribune will follow the staff of Woori Juntos, a Houston community group, as they try to convince lawmakers that their community is worth helping by knocking down language barriers that stand between non-English-speaking Texans and their government.

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HOUSTON — Terry Yun’s workdays typically begin and end with the metallic click of a black filing cabinet.

Its drawers hold manila folders, some an inch and a half thick, filled with Medicaid applications, Social Security benefit letters, insurance notices, Korean family census records, notes jotted during what felt like endless calls to government agencies — the accumulated paper record of lives she has touched.

They also hold her hopes.

From a second-floor office in the Korean Community Center, Yun ferries her fellow Korean Texans, mostly older residents who speak very little English, across the language gap dividing them from crucial government services.

Yun’s clients are among the nearly 60,000 Texans who speak Korean at home, at least half of them with limited English proficiency. They’re part of the hundreds of thousands of Texans who speak languages other than English or Spanish at home, a number that is expected to continue growing, particularly among Asians, who make up the fastest-growing segment of the state’s population.

For many of them, a state that conducts its business only in English and Spanish stands on the far side of a wall between them and the safety net that many low-income Texans rely on to make ends meet, to cover health services and, ultimately, to live — and to do it with dignity.

Yun's hope is that those in power will tear that wall down so that one day her clients won’t need her or her folders at all.

The Korean Community Center in the Spring Branch district of Houston, TX, on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023.

The Korean Community Center in Spring Branch. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

Terry S. Yun, left, helps a couple with paperwork in the Woori Juntos office at the Korean Community Center in the Spring Branch district of Houston, TX, on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. Woori Juntos means “We rise together” in Korean and Spanish.

Yun, left, helps a couple with paperwork in the Woori Juntos office at the Korean Community Center. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

This year, Yun and her colleagues at Woori Juntos, a local community group working to eliminate language barriers to health and social services, are looking to the Texas Legislature for help. Over the course of the legislative session that ends in May — the 140-day window every two years in which the public is purportedly invited to help set the state’s priorities — they will ask lawmakers to pass legislation increasing language access to the state’s health programs.

Their broader request is built on the simple concept that the government — especially in a state as diverse as Texas — should be able to speak to its people in a language they understand. But it also involves specific asks, including creating translated versions of benefit application forms and documents in key languages beyond English and Spanish.

That translation work currently falls on people like Yun. She keeps on hand a list she translated into Korean of more than 15 standard documents to help clients apply for Medicaid. During a recent client meeting, she skimmed through it covering details such as proof of citizenship, bank statements, utility bills and a log of medical expenses.

“All these little things are not little to them,” Yun said of the requirements her clients must decipher in a second language. “They’re mountainous.”

Terry S. Yun, flips through dozens of files paperwork in the Woori Juntos office at the Korean Community Center in the Spring Branch district of Houston, TX, on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. Yun has collected hundreds of papers and information for the people it serves in less than two years.

Yun flips through dozens of client files in the Woori Juntos office. The files — containing hundreds of important documents, benefit applications and notes — are a record of the help Yun has provided to clients in less than two years. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

Her life’s work

Meaning “we rise together” in a combination of Korean and Spanish, Woori Juntos was officially established in the summer of 2021. It was a formal extension of the language access work community leaders had taken on for many years when they’d translate the local ballot into Korean and organize “get out the vote” efforts with volunteers ready to serve as interpreters at the polls. Built on the unmet needs of Asian and immigrant communities that remained, the group’s work is split between organizing, advocacy and community service.

These days, facing a growing workload, Yun fits in anywhere from three to 10 clients a day — each needing her help to navigate their lives.

They have included a widower who had relied on his English-speaking wife to handle their finances before she died of cancer. It took Yun months to help him get hold of his accounts. There was a green card holder facing a lapse in health care coverage because she was struggling to locate — and translate — three original or certified documents proving her identity. Yun spent an entire day on her case, navigating three government agencies and drafting letters requesting extensions.

Yun has helped people apply for Social Security benefits, Medicaid, food stamps and housing assistance. She’s accompanied them to doctor’s appointments ahead of major surgeries. She’s thumbed through their mail for important notices and has instructed them to disregard shoddy promotionals that come into their email. She knows the income limits for supplemental income benefits off the top of her head. She knows that most of her clients could not get past even the first automated message on the state’s benefits help line, which asks English speakers to dial 1 and Spanish speakers to dial 2. (A third option, announced in English, exists for other languages, but the few additional options don’t include Korean, Yun says.)

She also knows what it’s like to need this sort of help.

“I’ve done this with my parents all my life since I was 11,” Yun said recently in between appointments.

Ten months after arriving in Oklahoma from South Korea in 1978, Yun’s parents set their sights on Houston, where they had heard jobs were more easily available to immigrants like them. It fell on Yun to help get them there by bus. She was equipped with only one school year’s worth of English and the devotion of her sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Hicks, who stayed with Yun after school teaching her basics like the days of the week and the months of the year.

Activist signs line a large whiteboard in the office of Woori Juntos, an immigrant advocacy organization headquartered at the Korean Community Center in the Spring Branch district of Houston, TX, on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023.

Activism signs line a large whiteboard in the office of the immigrant advocacy organization Woori Juntos. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

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Woori Juntos community service coordinator Terry Yun reflects on why she continues to work on providing language access to her community. Among the many reasons, she says she feels it is a calling that stems from her background as a first-generation immigrant. Credit: Fabiana Chaparro/The Texas Tribune

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A translated checklist for Medicaid application is available for people to use at the Korean Community Center in the Spring Branch district of Houston, TX, on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. The list was translated by Woori Juntos.

A list of documents needed to apply for Medicaid, translated by Woori Juntos, is available for clients to use. Translation is one of many services the group provides to help people access crucial government services. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

Newly arrived in Houston, parents and daughter slept in one room of a two-bedroom apartment they shared with another Korean immigrant. They had no money, no education and no context for the world in which they now lived. It was like being uprooted and landing in a desert, Yun said.

Devout Catholics, Yun’s parents didn’t have a car, so the family couldn’t even rely on the familiarity of Mass in their new city until they connected with a Korean Catholic church to which a parishioner would drive them every week.

A young Yun listened from the backseat as her father asked the driver what they could do to repay him for his generosity. Down the road, he replied, when you are in a better place and you encounter someone who has less than you and needs your help, just help them.

“I remembered [that] all my life,” Yun said. “I’ve never forgotten.”

Her parents eventually found work in maintenance at the since-renamed Sharpstown Mall, physical jobs that didn’t require them to speak much. She was an immigrant herself, but Yun said it was easier for her to “adapt.” She still had time to learn English and go to school. Life was available to her in a way that was out of reach for her parents.

Hers afforded the opportunity to go to college and pursue a job that allowed her to help others. Her parents, like many of her future clients, were thrust into a mold common for many immigrants in a new land who spend a lifetime working with little left financially to show for it.

Yun knows many of her clients must set aside some measure of pride to make room for help. She considers it an honor to provide it.

“I feel compassion because I know what it’s like to be on that other side,” she said. “I think it’s easier to help people than receive help. I think receiving help from other people is not an easy thing.”

Woori Juntos Community Service Coordinator Terry S. Yun helps Hyun and Won Choi fill out paperwork at the Korean Community Center in the Spring Branch district of Houston, TX, on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023.

Yun regularly helps clients apply for government benefits, such as Medicaid, supplemental income and food stamps. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

Working “extra hard”

A new form to be filled out. A new notice to be deciphered. A new letter to draft or call to be made checking on the status of a waylaid application. On the other end of the tasks Yun performs almost daily are crucial benefits her clients rely on.

She keeps nearby a yellow legal notepad on which she’s jotted down shortcuts to get through automated answering systems. Sometimes, she can guide a client through a government agency’s automated system to request a Korean interpreter, though that often comes with a long wait time. Other times, she has to rely on a script, with each line written out phonetically, so her clients can authorize her to speak on their behalf when they call in. She’s even provided her clients written-out instructions in Korean so they can set up three-way calls when they need her help outside of the office.

Her workload hardly ever eases. Even when she’s gotten clients set up with the benefits for which they’re eligible, there's often no apparent way for them to notify government agencies of their preferred language, so follow-ups to their accounts or benefits continue to be sent in English.

On a recent weekday morning, Yun pulled from her filing cabinet two thick folders that corresponded to an older couple seeking help with applications to renew Medicaid benefits that had arrived in their mailbox.

Renewals are typically quicker than applying for Medicaid initially — an endeavor that often takes the better part of a day, Yun said. Still, she left a three-hour gap for this appointment.

Yun carefully filled in the boxes asking for her clients’ dates of birth and other personal information. They were slowed down when she realized they needed to submit bank statements to prove they were still eligible — a requirement the couple had been unable to make sense of on their own, so they hadn’t brought those documents with them. She later paused at a box that asked for their Medicare claim numbers and wondered aloud what should go there.

The husband shifted in his seat and began to shuffle through the cards in his wallet. He pulled out his Medicare card to see if that would help.

Yun wanted to avoid calling the state’s help line because of the long wait she often encounters, but she was eventually forced to dial in when she couldn’t decipher what should go in that box. She didn’t want to risk an error that could slow down her clients’ renewals.

“Thank you for calling 2-1-1 Texas,” the automated system began. “To continue in English, press 1. Para continuar en español, oprima el 2. Please press zero for other languages.”

“It won’t say Korean though,” Yun said. It took her 15 minutes just to find her way through the automated system in English to get to a human — a process her clients would not have been able to get through.

These types of barriers are what Yun believes state lawmakers can help alleviate.

Steven Wu and Sarah Syed listen as Nicole Ma shares a personal experience about why she believes that the language access plan is crucial for helping her own community to an aide of state Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, in his office at the state Capitol, on Feb. 9 2023.

Woori Juntos staff member Nicole Ma, left, speaks with an aide to state Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, in his office at the state Capitol, sharing a personal experience about why she believes that broader language access is crucial for helping her community. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

An aide of state Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, examines an info sheet while Sarah Syed explains their proposal to create language access plans for health services, on Feb. 9 2023.

An aide to state Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, examines an informational sheet while Woori Juntos staff explain their proposal to create a language access plan for state health services. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Like many other advocacy and interest groups, Woori Juntos is eyeing the state’s $32.7 billion surplus. Their goal is to convince lawmakers that some of that money should go toward creating a language access plan and translating the state’s health benefits portal, program applications and forms into additional languages, including Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese and Arabic.

It is up to Yun and her colleagues to make the case to lawmakers that the current system to access health care benefits must be broadened. In a crowd of legislative requests, they’re hoping testimony detailing the experiences of Yun’s clients will break through. That lawmakers will see how far the need stretches in communities, not just in Spring Branch where Woori Juntos is based, but in other pockets of the state where immigrants might not have someone like Yun to help.

“I could see [that] with limited resources, they only can do a certain amount,” Yun said. “And I guess that's why people like us have to work extra hard in trying to give that kind of aid.”

An English speaker who's lived in Texas their whole life might never think beyond pressing 1 for help or visiting a website but, “We have to probably go through several steps before we can even get to that step one,” Yun said.

Yun celebrates how much more relatively accessible the system has become for the state’s Spanish speakers. She wishes for that for her community and others. Until that changes, she’ll keep filling her folders and making space in her filing cabinet, waiting until the next letter or form or application makes its way into her clients’ mailboxes.

Then she’ll translate those, too.

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