Testing Language Access in Nassau County: Failure

Protesters are calling for County Executive Mangano to make Nassau language accessible.
Protesters are calling for County Executive Mangano to make Nassau language accessible.

Empire Justice and LILAC have released a new report on testing conducted in the spring of language access at various Nassau County agencies. The results are frightening. Even though County Executive Ed Mangano promised two years ago to make the county language accessible, the study found poor to non-existent implementation.  You can read the report here. These stories from the testing survey indicate the kinds of problems immigrants encounter every day:

Over the course of the testing, a few Spanish speakers sometimes received assistance if there was a Spanish speaking staff person available. However, callers to the Office for the Aging and the Office for Mental Health were told to hold for an interpreter and were instead transferred to another agency (the Coordinating Agency for Spanish Americans), where the person on the line was unable to provide adequate information about the department the tester had originally called.

A Spanish speaking caller to the Youth Department was directed in English to call the Uniondale afterschool program to see if someone there could assist her in Spanish. A Spanish speaking caller to the Veterans Department was told to call somebody named Oscar. Spanish speaking callers to Minority Affairs were repeatedly told that nobody could assist them. With only one exception, callers who spoke languages other than Spanish were hung up on or laughed at. Many reported that rude comments were made and that the person who answered the phone stated, “We only speak English.” The Korean speaking caller reported being laughed at when calling the Anti-Bias Task Force as well as Emergency Services.

In-person visits were made to every Police Precinct as well as Police Headquarters. None of these locations had signs posted informing the public of the availability of an interpreter. The only sign posted in Spanish pertained to drug abuse. Agency afterhours lines were also called and the messages were completely inconsistent. The majority of phone messages were only in English. A handful were also in Spanish. None provided an option for speakers of other languages to leave a message or access services.

An advocate who accompanied a Farsi speaking family to the Nassau County Department of Social Services to apply for Public Assistance requested a Farsi interpreter. The DSS employee told her, “We don’t do that.” When the advocate persisted in requesting language assistance, the worker told her they would have to come back another day. A Russian speaking caller to the Office of Mental Health, Chemical Dependency and Developmental Disabilities was told that there was nobody who could assist her. Then she was told to hold on for an interpreter and the phone line went dead. A Spanish speaking caller to the same office was told that the Spanish speaking worker was on vacation for the week. A Haitian Creole speaking caller to the Health Department WIC Program could tell that the person on the line was frustrated at not being able to help him. The person on the line said, “I don’t know. This is really great.” Another Haitian Creole speaker was also told by the Office of Emergency Management, “English and Spanish are the only languages spoken here.”

Spanish speaking callers to the Police Department were unable to receive any assistance. One caller was told, in English, “If problema, you have to call 911.” A female Spanish speaking caller to the First Precinct had a male Officer disrespectfully call her “Mami.” The Officer then proceeded to persist in asking her where she lived, how many years she had lived in this country, and why she did not speak English.

Cheryl Keshner of Empire Justice Center and Long Island Language Advocates Coalition, Erick Rojas from the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island and Maryann Slutsky of Long Island WINS coauthored the report.

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.