Addressing the Digital Divide For Immigrant Families During COVID-19

May 13, 2021–By Megan Nguyen

As the only child of immigrant parents, my familial role has long been a complex one: equal parts interpreter, computer technician, and frontline advocate for my parents who depend on me to navigate this country. These converging responsibilities became increasingly difficult—and all the more important—during the COVID-19 pandemic when much of the world shifted to remote work and consequently grew more dependent on technology.  

COVID-19 exacerbated the digital divide for immigrant families with limited English and technological literacy, including my own and many others in my hometown of Revere, Massachusetts. When nail salons closed, I helped my mother—a nail technician—apply for unemployment benefits because the MA Unemployment Insurance (UI) website could not be translated to her native language. When nail salons reopened, I helped her complete the BARBICIDE® training by clicking through and explaining the questions. Since the rollout of vaccines began, I have helped my parents navigate countless phone calls, texts, and pre-registration websites to schedule an appointment. 

My parents’ digital challenges are attributed to several social and economic factors consistent with Revere. Many Revere residents are immigrants from countries with heightened technology inaccessibility, speak a language other than English as their native language, and earned up to a high school diploma. A brief profile of Revere’s population is as follows:

  • 9.4% of Revere families fall below the poverty level.
  • Approximately 37% of the population are immigrants.
  • 52.92% of adults have the educational attainment of a high school diploma or less.
  • 51.7% of Revere households speak a language other than English at home.

As the nation navigates a pandemic that disproportionately affects underserved populations, our governments must focus on equitably designing unemployment benefits and vaccine registration processes. The millions of Americans affected by an ever-growing digital divide are being left behind, and it is time for us to do better. 

Governments should consider these four strategies when creating more equitable services during COVID-19:

    • Write in plain language: The questions on unemployment insurance websites are often intricately phrased and confusing, posing comprehension challenges even for native English speakers. The questions should instead reflect an elementary school reading level, especially considering that children help adults complete their unemployment benefit claims in many immigrant households because they have a stronger grasp on English.
    • Offer translation services: Many state unemployment benefits and vaccine registration agencies do not offer comprehensive translation services. Some agencies may have translations available in a limited number of languages for only one of their communication channels—such as websites, mail correspondence, or SMS messaging—posing inconsistency in communication and accessibility. These agencies should identify the languages most relevant to their respective communities to offer thorough translation services, ensuring that Americans can access critical resources regardless of their English literacy level. 
    • Diversify foreign language services at call centers: Comprehensive translation services should further extend to call centers with representatives helping constituents obtain unemployment benefits and vaccine appointments in their native language. Elham Ali, Health Data Technologist-in-Residence at U.S. Digital Response, describes that many marginalized Americans do not have access to computers and reliable Internet connection, placing a greater importance on offline services like call centers. 
    • Develop mobile-enabled websites and applications: Smartphones tend to be more accessible and easier to use than computers among low-income, immigrant families. Considering that many unemployment insurance and vaccine registration websites are not designed for smartphones, is it important for governments to optimize their usability on both desktop and mobile web browsers. Governments should also explore mobile applications as an additional platform for government services because they can be more intuitive to navigate than websites. 

My experiences in helping my parents technologically navigate the pandemic are not unique and I believe these four strategies could help thousands of families like mine. Communities like Revere with significant digital and English literacy disparities are overburdened by the immense dependence this pandemic has put on technology. Governments must continue to innovate their unemployment insurance and vaccine registration processes to ensure that all Americans are receiving equitable resources. 

Megan Nguyen is a first-generation college student at Georgetown University majoring in Science, Technology, and International Affairs. As a Student Analyst, Megan explores how data practices and digital services can help governments better serve public needs.