Huddled over laptops in a Capitol basement conference room, the Woori Juntos team prepared to learn if they would see even one small tangible result from the months they had spent trying to sway state lawmakers.
The Houston community group serving Korean residents had begun the 2023 legislative session hopeful they could convince the Legislature to do on a statewide scale what they do at home: breaking down language barriers so Texans who don't speak English can access crucial state services. It was an endeavor that could benefit an untold number of Texans with limited English proficiency who might otherwise go without help because their government does not speak to all of its people in a language they understand.
Their effort was also a test of who exactly lawmakers listen to — and whose needs are prioritized — when they convene in Austin once every two years for a regular legislative session.
But with just four days left in that 140-day slog on this Thursday afternoon, Woori Juntos' most coveted goal — a bill that would have required health agencies to translate benefit application forms and other important documents into key languages beyond English and Spanish — was already dead. It had never emerged from the House committee where it was considered.
Now they were waiting to see if their one remaining aspiration had survived — a few paragraphs that had been included in drafts of the state budget that would require the state's health commission to study the costs of developing a language access plan, including the translations.
A study was in some ways the legislative equivalent of a consolation prize, but it was one the activists would gladly accept. Representing the possibility for progress, it moved them one bit closer to their ultimate goal.
Woori Juntos got word the final version of the state budget was coming out of closed-door deliberations between the House and Senate. Like many others in the Capitol building, they gathered around computers and rushed to open up the 1,032-page document.
Out of time
Woori Juntos' first legislative session is a case study in how small moments of headway, buoyed by waves of hope and resolve, can propel a community through the Capitol building.
They entered a crowded lawmaking process as both homegrown optimists and legislative newcomers, competing with established interest groups, well-paid lobbyists working on behalf of corporate giants and thousands of other Texans who also descended to ask for lawmakers' consideration of their causes.
They managed to get legislation filed just before a March deadline after a mad dash to secure sponsors. But theirs was just one of nearly 8,000 bills filed, and they knew only a fraction would get to the point of even being considered by a committee. Just a sliver of those would actually become law.
For weeks, the Woori Juntos team bused supporters back and forth from Houston, hustling to build support. During countless dropins at lawmakers' offices, they recounted how the mostly low-income older residents of Spring Branch relied on Woori Juntos to access state social services. How language barriers stood between those residents and desperately needed benefits to cover health care costs and even groceries. Back home, their staff continued its daily work helping community members — Korean-speaking Texans who know little or no English — over the language blockades to apply for benefits like Medicaid or food stamps.
They were rewarded for their determination and reached a legislative milestone in April with a long-awaited public hearing on their bill. Their time before the House Human Services Committee was relatively short, but it was the keystone of their efforts.
As they saw it, Woori Juntos' legislation was just the current iteration of decades of work by Korean immigrant advocates to be seen and heard by their government. At the hearing, they brought with them the realities of Texans who have not always been welcome in buildings like the Capitol, the people's house.
"A few months ago, they didn't even know what a Legislature does," Steven Wu, Woori Juntos' organizing and policy manager, said of the mostly older Korean immigrants brought into the legislative fold this session.
With their bill left pending in committee, typical after a hearing, Woori Juntos began angling for a vote to advance it out of committee. The day of the hearing, they visited the offices of committee members to drop off additional testimony from community members. Back home, they phone banked, calling committee members' offices to ask for a vote. They collected signatures from other community organizations in support of their cause.
They celebrated developments that for Capitol regulars were perhaps less consequential, like when they convinced more and more lawmakers to sign on as co-authors to their legislation. For them, each endorsement inched them closer to a fuller recognition of the problem they were attempting to solve.
They reached another legislative milestone when they convinced two Republicans — state Reps. Matt Shaheen of Plano and Richard Hayes of Denton — to sign on as joint authors, ensuring their legislation was a bipartisan measure as they had originally envisioned.
"But we ran out of time," Wu said.
The bipartisan support had come too late. The Republicans signed on to the bill the Friday before a Monday deadline for it to be voted out of committee.
That day, they visited the committee's office throughout the day and waited for confirmation the committee wouldn't meet again before the deadline, assuring their legislation had met its end. When they finally got word, they walked out of the Capitol basement into the fresh air and still felt hope.
Even having a bill to chase down to the last minute was more than they could have envisioned for their first try at citizen lobbying.
"It was a grounding moment. We made it farther than we thought," said Nicole Ma, the group's organizing and policy associate. "Our bill didn't die — it's going to evolve. The work isn't done here."
Even after their legislation died, Woori Juntos remained a constant presence at the Capitol.
They were new to advocacy on this level and much of their work had been figuring out the legislative process. But they also wanted to build ties with other community organizations and advocates working toward similar goals.
As the House and Senate began to swap bills — all legislation needs to be approved by both chambers — they registered positions in favor of what they considered good bills and helped rally support against bad ones. They joined other advocates in the galleries of the House and Senate chambers in solidarity as measures they opposed came up for votes.
Late one evening outside the House chamber, they helped keep a chant going while Democratic lawmakers came out to hug the parent of a slain Uvalde child when the time officially ran out on legislation to raise the minimum age to purchase certain semi-automatic rifles.
"2-7-4-4," they yelled. "Put this bill on the floor."
And they bided their time for the budget to be finalized. The language for their study had been dropped into the draft budget by the House, but it needed to make it through the chamber's weekslong negotiations with the Senate.
The waiting made room for reflection.
"My personal story? Does that really matter?" Quỳnh-Hương Nguyễn, the group's senior communications associate, recalled hearing from their community members when they asked them to put together testimony in support of their bill.
The results were pages and pages of testimonials and personal stories not shared before, Nguyễn said. Woori Juntos also believed they had begun to change the culture of the Legislature when it came to language accessibility. As far as they knew, the instances in which their members testified before committees marked the first time Korean was spoken in public hearings.
In showing up and making themselves heard, these older Korean Texans were claiming their stake in a state that doesn't always listen to them, Ma said.
"That's all we could have asked for," Ma said.
But when they pulled up the budget, it all came to an unceremonious end.
Over hundreds of pages, lawmakers detailed their spending priorities: $17.6 billion for property tax relief, $1.1 billion for school district grants, millions of dollars for border security and a training center upgrade for state law enforcement, another $1 billion to expand Texas parks.
The provision to fund their study was nowhere to be found. In a $321.3 billion budget, including funds drawn from a record $32.7 billion surplus, not a penny was allocated to even study improving language accessibility to state services.
Plenty of other studies did make it into the final document. A study on social work workforce needs. Efficiency of driver's license services. Winery permits. Transportation technology. Illegal game bird hunting and the shrimp industry.
"It's disappointing," Wu said about the final budget. "They had so much money in the surplus."
Exhausted from the last few months, Woori Juntos is trying to look beyond this legislative session and build for future ones. They are pursuing an interim charge from the speaker of the House directing lawmakers to study their cause ahead of the next legislative session in 2025. They are trying to begin conversations with the state's health commission to see what improvements could be made to the state's language options without legislation.
They are committed to keep working. They always knew it would likely take more than one legislative session. Even getting a committee hearing had at one point been a stretch goal.
But they were also disheartened. Taking to Twitter, Wu expressed his frustration lamenting that Texans presenting policies seen as "conservative enough" could get a "blank check."
"But if your policy helps improve the material condition of our communities, you'll get nothing and scraps if you're lucky," he wrote.
It was especially bruising that even as time ran out on their effort, they continued to confront instances of language injustices in and out of the Capitol.
At a Senate committee hearing in May, requests for interpreters to help members of the public testify in Spanish went unfulfilled. They were there to oppose GOP priority legislation to create a new state border police force — an initiative that opponents feared would allow unlicensed vigilantes to patrol their communities.
In the waning days of the session, Woori Juntos was also splitting its advocacy attention in hopes of influencing the budget process back home in Houston. Locals had recently received a shelter-in-place order for a chemical fire near an immigrant-heavy area, but the city's notice had gone out only in English and Spanish. As staff and community members prepared to speak at a city council meeting, they requested Korean interpreters to be on hand to help them make their case for better investments in language accessibility and policies that could support them.
But an automated translating device used by the city wasn't working properly, and they were told it would be expensive to bring in an interpreter.
Woori Juntos ended up doing the interpretation work themselves.
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