In A ‘Historic’ Win, Suffolk County Passes Language Access Bill

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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)

The Suffolk County Legislature passed a language access bill on Tuesday, April 24, that will codify into law a 2012 executive order that mandates language access for the county’s limited English proficient population.

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

“This is just common sense, and good government,” Martinez told Newsday.

The new law, which takes effect January 1, 2019, will 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 the latest Census data. These are Italian, Mandarin, Spanish, Polish, Haitian Creole, and Portuguese. The bill also stipulates that agencies provide “competent interpretation” services.

Cheryl Keshner, coordinator of the advocacy group Long Island Language Advocates Coalition (LILAC), called the legislation “historic.”

“Experience tells us that that these laws will not have any effect unless they are properly enacted. As advocates, we need to continue to push from the ground up to ensure proper implementation,” Keshner stated. “We must continue to collect stories to highlight the areas where improvements still need to be made and to recognize when positive changes have been made.”

Last month, LILAC presented to the legislature results of their testing, which showed that many callers trying to access county services in a different language were improperly assisted or even hung up on.

Under the existing executive order, many vital departments and bureaus are already included. The local law will also include the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, Office of Assessment, County Clerk, Suffolk County Treasurer, Suffolk County Legislature, District Attorney and Comptroller.

However, Keshner said that the legislation does not include an oversight committee, which advocates had pushed for. So, she added, LILAC and other advocates will continue to press local officials to make sure the law is actually implemented.

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