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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Foreign language speakers phoning Suffolk County offices last year were hung up on, laughed at, and in the case of one participant, called a derogatory name and told to go back to her country, advocates told legislators Tuesday as they considered a bill mandating translation services at county offices.
Advocates speaking Spanish and Urdu made the “test” calls last year after non-English speakers complained they were turned away from accessing county services, including filing police reports and applying for social service benefits.
The bill would codify into law a 2012 executive order issued by County Executive Steve Bellone that requires county agencies to provide access to a translation phone service for non-English speakers, and translate key documents into six languages.
“It is disturbing this was signed in 2012 and we’re not in full compliance,” said Cheryl Keshner, coordinator for the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition and community advocate of the Central Islip-based Empire Justice Center. The bill would also expand the language-access requirements to other countywide elected officials, including the Suffolk Sheriff’s office, which runs the jail.
She said group members made 88 calls from August to December, asking basic questions of how to access services. The calls frequently went to voicemail without non-English language instructions. They were answered by a person 52 times; connected to a language line 14 times, and directed to bilingual staff on 16 occasions. The other 22 times, the callers did not receive services, Keshner said.
She credited Bellone for the executive order, but said the results show the need for more oversight.
In an August call to the Suffolk police department’s 7th Precinct, one woman asked in Spanish the time of the next community meeting. The person who answered called the woman an expletive and told her to go back to her own country, said Dulce Rojas, eastern Suffolk community organizer for SEPA Mujer, which provides immigration services for women who are victims of assault and domestic violence.
The coalition reported the results of its survey to the U.S. Department of Justice, which is monitoring the Suffolk County Police Department under a consent decree for discrimination practices toward Latino communities, Rojas and Keshner said.
Outside Tuesday’s meeting, Acting Suffolk Police Commissioner Stuart Cameron said the woman’s complaint would be investigated and many of the lines are recorded.
“By and large our officers are professional,” he said. “If it occurred, the officer absolutely would be punished and disciplined for it.”
He said officers have had or are undergoing training on identifying hate crimes and improving language access to non-English speakers. New tablets being distributed in police vehicles will also easily connect non-English speakers with translators.
County Executive spokesman Jason Elan said Bellone supports the legislation and “will work with her to expand all aspects of this program including training and public awareness.”
A county official said the administration became aware of the August incident last month and is “looking into this.”
“That’s a disgraceful and disgusting thing you’re saying one of our officers said,” Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), the Republican minority leader, told the advocates.
Martinez, the bill sponsor, said the legislative body needs to look into the allegations further.
“I will continue to work with advocates and community groups to make sure incidents such as these don’t happen again,” she said. She asked community members to file complaints when incidents like this occur.
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Laura Lemus, of the immigrant advocacy group Long Island Wins, presents a letter listing grieivances to a representative in the Smithtown office of state Sen. John Flanagan on Friday, April 1, 2016. Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan
Politicians may have been celebrating a budget deal in Albany, but a coalition of advocates was protesting in Smithtown over a host of issues they say have been left out of the political debate this session.
A small group of about 20 advocates on Friday walked into the office of Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) with signed petitions and letters. They were calling, among other issues, for support of legal protections for transgender people; tuition aid for immigrants who don’t have legal status; placing limits on solitary confinement of prisoners, and increasing state funding for public transportation.
Their common concern, they said, is that Flanagan has not agreed to meet with advocates on progressive issues to hear them out.
“We’re just asking for our fair share,” said Aaron Watkins-Lopez, organizer with the Long Island Bus Riders’ Union, which is seeking better bus services funded through taxes.
“What we are asking for is that our elected officials, our state senators and our representatives, when they go back to the state, they are advocating for Long Island, you know, they’re not just advocating for their best interests,” Watkins-Lopez said. “We are all groups that people like to pretend that we don’t exist . . . but we are here and we’re going to get louder.”
Flanagan’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The advocates spoke to a legislative aide for Flanagan, who listened and received their petitions. They exited the office building chanting, “What do we want? Transparency! When do we want it? Now!”
Juli Grey-Owens of the Long Island Transgender Advocacy Coalition said these groups will continue to work together to hold elected officials accountable. She wants to see legal protections against the discrimination of transgender people enacted in New York.
“The overall message is representation” or the lack thereof, Grey-Owens said. “These are all very important issues that, unfortunately, it seems, our senators and many of our representatives are missing the boat as far as what these issues are and how important they are to Long Islanders.”
Read more about here http://www.newsday.com/long-island/politics/sen-flanagan-asked-to-address-transgender-immigrant-issues-1.11643020