Language Access Bill Passes: A Victory for Immigrants in Suffolk

Members of SEPA Mujer, who worked alongside LILAC to have the language access bill passed in Suffolk County. (Photo via Noticia Long Island)

With 11 votes in favor and seven against, the Suffolk County Legislature approved Resolution 1033 introduced by legislator Mónica Martínez (D-Brentwood), which requires all agencies, departments and services in the county to provide language access through interpretation and translation services for people who do not speak English. This achievement started as a joint effort of a number of community organizations, and promises to bring a change in the language environment on Long Island.

With Resolution 1033, the Suffolk County Legislature established that an array of languages are spoken in the county, that 20 percent of its residents over 5 years of age speak a language at home that is not English, and that 10 percent of them have a limited knowledge of English.

Similarly, the Legislature determined that this is a limitation that creates a significant obstacle for people seeking information about the government, programs and services.

“In 2010, members of several organizations voluntarily came together to make sure that people with limited English proficiency can use services by government agencies and treated with respect and without the long waits,” said Cheryl Keshner, founder and coordinator of the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition (LILAC), the organization that spearheaded this change alongside SEPA Mujer Inc., Silo, Empire Justice Center and Brighter Tomorrows.

The campaign continues to be carried out all over Long Island with the slogan “Language access saves lives.” The objective is to guarantee that everyone, regardless of the language they speak or understand, can have equal access to services offered by the police, the courts, as well as medical attention and social services, among others. This also includes access for people who are hard of hearing and visually impaired.

This joint effort yielded its first results in 2012, when Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone issued an executive order to provide language access. Still, this was not enough to get all government agencies to offer assistance in languages other than English.

“Last year, we did a test, and the results were a disaster,” said Martha Maffei, executive director of SEPA Mujer. “We realized that interpretation services were not being used and that, at some agencies, callers would have to wait over 20 minutes for a translator, and even in some cases someone would leave a message for the police and receive strong insults in the reply, such as: ‘Go back to your country.’”

That is why, with these results, Suffolk County Legislator Mónica Martínez chose to introduce the language access bill. Now, all government agencies offering services and programs must immediately prepare to facilitate translations and documents in the six predominant languages in the county according to the census, among them Spanish [Translator’s note: The others are Haitian Creole, Italian, Chinese Mandarin, Polish and Portuguese]. The measure will take effect on Jan. 1, 2019.

Waiting for changes in Nassau

“We are working in both counties,” said Keshner. “In 2012 we worked with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and there were some changes, even though more implementation is needed. We did the same with former Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, but he did practically nothing and we had to work separately with the county’s police and social services. However, we have already met with current Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, who has expressed her support, and we are waiting to see changes.”

Keshner also stressed the importance of making it known that all agencies receiving federal funds cannot discriminate, and that’s why LILAC’s main job is to educate those agencies about their responsibilities.

“What we have seen is that there is not enough training for the people working in government agencies that provide services. They need to know that they are required to provide translations immediately,” said Martha Maffei, executive director of SEPA Mujer, who thanked legislators for the achievement, and hopes that the bill will yield positive results soon.

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