A 2012 executive order directing county agencies to offer language access services to people of limited English proficiency may soon be codified into law if a bill sponsored by County Legislator Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood) moves forward next week at a legislative meeting in Riverhead.
The intent of the bill, titled “A local law to ensure language assistance for the public,” is to acknowledge that limited English proficiency (LEP) “can be a substantial barrier” for residents seeking to access government information, programs and services, and that it is in the interest of all county residents to ensure and improve language access.
Language access advocates say that a lack of interpretation and translation services for LEP residents in Suffolk County is a problem that not only prevents people from receiving important information in emergency situations — putting them at risk, sometimes even meaning the difference between life and death — but also affects the population as a whole.
“Implementing effective, meaningful language access helps everybody,” Long Island Language Advocates Coalition (LILAC) coordinator and Empire Justice senior paralegal and advocate Cheryl Keshner said.
“If somebody wants to report a crime and can’t do it, or if someone is taking care of someone with a health emergency and can’t get help, we are all affected,” she said.
After Marcelo Lucero was killed in 2008 by a group of teenagers in Patchogue who had beaten and bullied Lucero and others repeatedly, immigrant advocates said the victims had tried to complain about the hate crimes several times to the police, but experienced language barriers.
The U.S. Justice Department, after an investigation, found the Suffolk County Police Department was not compliant with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says that agencies receiving federal funds are prohibited from discriminating against persons on the basis of race, color or national origin. The federal agency found the county had severe gaps in services that needed to be corrected.
Among those, language access and cultural competence were specifically highlighted as crucial to improve relations with the community, Keshner said. The Justice Department then entered into an agreement in 2011 with the Suffolk County Police Department that, among other things, mandated the translation of vital documents, the translation of their website, interpretation services and other language access services and programs for LEP residents.
The lack of interpretation and translation services was also evidenced during and after Hurricane Sandy, when many issues and problems ensued because of the lack of language access, said Keshner.
In November 2012, County Executive Steve Bellone signed Executive Order 10 () directing county agencies to provide language assistance services. It was remarkable at the time, following the contentious tenure of his predecessor Steve Levy, which immigrant advocates say was rife with hate crimes and nativist rhetoric.
“Levy was feeding a lot of hate and what Bellone wanted to do is to let everybody know we are welcoming place,” Keshner said.
The 2012 executive order directs all executive agencies in county government to follow state and federal policies already in place and “provide direct public services to offer language assistance services (translation and interpretation) to people of Limited English Proficiency.”
“Suffolk County government is here to serve all our residents,” Bellone said at the time.
Martinez, who met this week with different organizations and individuals that are part of LILAC and whose advocates are concerned about “unequal and system issues that create barriers to meaningful access,” agrees.
“I am proud of working together with community groups and language access advocates to advance this important piece of legislation which will guarantee a better delivery of services to ALL residents particularly in times of crisis, such as natural disasters,” said Martinez.
Keshner said that although there’s been improvement since Bellone signed the executive order, there’s still a long way to go.
“There are still a lot of gaps,” she said. “By codifying the order this will become a permanent county law and will hopefully expand to cover more departments, not only those under the county executive’s authority, but also county divisions and other departments and services like the sheriff’s department and others.”
“It would help to unify how these services are provided county-wide,” Keshner added.
Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) said that although he believes Martinez’s proposal is “a great idea,” there needs to be a determination made to know “which level of interpretation and translation is needed, as well as the resources, to implement it effectively.”
Under the executive order, language access is based on census data, which determines which six languages other than English are the most used, and looks to provide LEP residents, as well as those with language disabilities, interpretation and translation services at county agencies.
Interpretation or translation doesn’t necessarily mean having someone face-to-face, but having access to a telephone interpreting system, minicom, translated documents in at least six languages, among other resources, said Keshner.
A linguistically diverse county, about 20 percent of Suffolk residents speak a language other than English at home and around 10 percent are LEP residents, according to LILAC.
Martinez said her proposal would codify already-established federal and state policies — and enforce them.
“If you are receiving federal funds, you have to comply with the law according to county, state and federal executive orders,” SEPA Mujer (Advancement of Women) executive director Martha Maffei said.
Presidential Executive Order 13166, signed in 2000, says that federally funded agencies must ensure, and take action if necessary, to make sure LEP individuals have meaningful access to federally conducted programs and services.
Designed to enforce and implement Title VI, executive order 13166 also mandates that each federally funded agency provide a plan for providing that access.
To assist federal agencies in carrying out these responsibilities, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a Policy Guidance Document in 2002 that explains the compliance standards that recipients of federal financial assistance must follow to ensure that programs and activities normally provided in English are accessible to LEP persons and do not discriminate.
“It’s the government’s responsibility to safeguard all residents and make sure their well-being is protected,” Martinez said.
And, having — or not having —that access, is crucial, something that Riverhead resident *Rosa García experienced first hand.
In the fall of last year depressed and pregnant with the child of her workplace sexual harasser, Garcia had finally convinced her friend, who also knew the man, to set up a meeting with him at a public parking lot.
The idea was to call the police as soon the man showed up, and report the harassment.
When the man drove up in his car, Rosa called the police. She asked for someone who spoke Spanish, but nobody was available at the time, she said. Her daughter, then 10 years of age, was sitting in the backseat, and told her mom she would deliver the message in English.
However, because of the nature of the issues Rosa wanted to report, she didn’t feel it was appropriate for her daughter to translate, and she just told her daughter to say that there was a man at that location who wasn’t being nice to women.
The dispatcher asked for the man’s plate number and Rosa’s daughter provided it. A few minutes later a police car came, but upon seeing it, the man took off. The police, said Rosa, followed and stopped the man and after a couple questions, let him go. They never contacted her or talked to her.
Later, the man called her friend and told her that they were being stupid thinking the police would listen to them when they couldn’t even communicate. He said he had told the cops that the women worked for him and the little girl was just playing a prank, her friend told Rosa. The man said the officer didn’t question his story and even joked with him about it.
A single mother of two, Rosa had been working for this man doing landscaping jobs, and although she was being sexually harassed, she depended on that work to meet the most basic needs for her and her children: food, rent, gas.
The harassment started from day one. He offered her money for sex almost daily, would try to kiss her, would speak of his sexual prowess, he would call other women on the phone and put them on speaker to let Rosa know he had multiple lovers he paid (and cheated on, including his wife) and she should become one his lover too. After months of this treatment, on a particular day when Rosa was going through an extremely difficult situation, tired and emotionally drained of the advances of this man, she decided to say yes and just “let him do it, so he would stop.”
“I felt like the lowest of the low, my self-esteem was destroyed,” she said. “After that day I couldn’t go back to work and see him, even if it meant not having money.”
And unbeknowsnt to Rosa, that one time she had sex with her harasser, she became pregnant.
Rosa fell into a deep depression and did not go to the doctor until she was eight and half months pregnant because she was “feeling sick.”
She had pre-eclampsia, a condition that occurs to some women during pregnancy characterized by high blood pressure and signs of organ damage. She was also feeling suicidal.
“They asked me and I told them,” she said. “It would be better if God didn’t let me live any longer, I prayed that was the case.”
Thanks to the interpreters at the clinic she went to, they were able to determine she needed mental health care and they rushed her to Stony Brook, where she saw a social worker and others who evaluated her. They also explained all options available to her, including adoption, and what would happen once she had the baby.
“I felt relieved I could talk to someone,” Rosa said. “It was very hard to give the baby up for adoption, but I felt so guilty and unable to take care of him and with no financial means to provide for one more person,” she said, her voice broken, tears streaming down her face.
Situations like Rosa’s are not uncommon, Maffei said. “Many in our community are vulnerable and it is the government’s responsibility to ensure their rights aren’t being violated,” she said.
Today Rosa is in a better place, she said. She is still trying to cope with the events of the past few months, but she says she wished she could have reported her harasser.
“I was determined to do it then. I just needed someone to translate,” she said.
* Editor’s note: Rosa Garcia agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity.
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