Advocates Support Language Access Bill In Suffolk

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Cheryl Keshner, senior paralegal with the Empire Justice Center and coordinator of LILAC, led a group of advocates to testify before the Suffolk County Legislature on Tuesday to support officially codified and expanded language access. (Long Island Wins photo/Jano Tantongco)

Advocates spoke out on Tuesday at a public hearing at the Suffolk County Legislature general meeting on a proposed county law that would codify and expand a 2012 executive order that mandates language access for the county’s limited English proficient population.

Among the advocates speaking was Cheryl Keshner, senior paralegal with the Empire Justice Center and coordinator of LILAC, short for the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition.

“There is a need for oversight… for community involvement of stakeholders and advocates who are supporting not only the immigrant community, but people with disabilities,” Keshner said.

The bill, sponsored by Legislator Monica Martinez, describes Suffolk as “linguistically diverse,” with 20 percent of its population, 5 years and older, speaking a language other than English in their household.

It would mandate any agency that provides public services to translate vital documents in the six most common non-English languages spoken in the county, based on Census data. These are Italian, Mandarin, Spanish, Polish, Haitian Creole, and Portuguese. The bill would also stipulate agencies to provide “competent interpretation” services.

“We saw numerous disparities in the way our limited English proficient clients and community members were being treated when seeking an order of protection, when applying for emergency housing, when trying to get health services, or accessible transportation,” Keshner said. “Many were left waiting until the end of the day when going to county offices seeking assistance, or were told to rely on their young children, or even to find a stranger in the parking lot in order to provide interpretation.”

Speaking at the hearing was also Siris Barrios, a community liaison for community revitalization group Riverside Rediscovered and a board member of SEPA Mujer. Living on Long Island for six years now as an active community member, she recounted a traumatic story from her childhood in California for the public hearing.

“When I was 8 years old, there was a murder on our property… When the police arrived, I was the translator for everyone. And, looking back, it was so normal to translate at the doctor… or anytime my mom had to interface with anyone,” Barrios said.

In such situations, she said, it is inefficient and inappropriate to have non-qualified people translate or mediate access to services.

LILAC members have been testing the quality of language accessibility in both Nassau and Suffolk counties for the past several years. In the latest round, taking place in 2017 from August to December, 88 calls were made. Of these, only 14 callers were connected to a language line, while 16 were directed to bilingual staff. The rest of the time, callers did not receive services or were directed to voicemail with English only instructions. On a few extreme occasions, Keshner said, those answering used expletives or told callers to go back to their countries.

SEPA Mujer Community Organizer Dulce Rojas, who also spoke at the hearing, said that even just one instance of failing to connect a caller to vital information could be hazardous.

“Also, just the fact that we were calling about non-emergency calls… these were just very basic questions, and there were still no assistance for services. So, I can’t imagine someone calling with an emergency,” Rojas said. “The one time they call for assistance might be the only time they reach out.”

And, in some cases, a plea for help lost in translation can turn deadly. Keshner cited a triple homicide in Queens in 2014, which may have been prevented had adequate translation services been provided. The late Deisy Garcia filed two domestic violence reports against her husband in Spanish with police.

However, the reports were never translated, as is mandated by New York City Police Department protocol. Just months after the second report was filed, Garcia and her two young children were stabbed to death, by her husband who later pled guilty to the charges.

With the resolution expected to be voted on in the upcoming county general meeting, it could mark a bold step forward for Long Island truly welcoming immigrants. Strong language access can help bridge the gap and allow our immigrant neighbors to more fully contribute to Long Island in all respects.

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