Suffolk County will begin making language assistance services available at its offices Thursday to accommodate the estimated more than 100,000 eastern Long Island residents with limited-English proficiency (LEP) when they need government services.
County Executive Steve Bellone signed last year an executive order mandating free translation and interpretation services in all county offices for anyone who speaks Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Chinese, French Creole and Polish.
“I can’t promise perfection, but I can promise that you’ll have all the tools,” Assistant Deputy County Executive Luis Montes said Wednesday in Spanish to a crowd of nearly 100 at a community meeting in Brentwood.
The meeting was organized by the Long Island Civic Engagement Table, New York Communities for Change and Make the Road New York, three nonprofit advocacy groups that termed the move the first new pro-immigrant policy in recent memory as well as the only one of its kind in suburban New York.
Advocates also noted that the policy is a welcome change after the recent five-year anniversary of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero’s slaying by a group of teenagers in Patchogue—one of several high-profile hate crimes that drew international headlines.
“Now, instead of turning the immigrants into something they’re not, we’re working with the community,” said Daniel Altschuler of the Long Island Civic Engagement Table.
Several people at the meeting shared their experiences in which language barriers made it difficult or impossible to receive help from police, health care and social service providers.
Marcia Estrada recalled how she once waited three hours for a translator to help her file a police report, but she had to leave the station house before one arrived.
“I had to take care of my child,” Estrada said in Spanish. “They said they were going to send an officer, but they never arrived.”
Before the new policy and in response to such criticisms, Suffolk police in recent years have set up phone lines that allow police to contact translators by phone if one is not available to assist LEP residents.
The new policy also codifies that anyone seeking services at county government offices will not be asked about their immigration status—a question that can have a chilling effect in the immigrant community.
“Even my parents have to this day,” Legis.-elect Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood) said in Spanish, “when they go to get services…I have to go with them.”
For more information about the program, the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition will be hosting a conference, “Navigating a Roadmap for Language Access: Celebrating Our Successes, Addressing Our Challenges,” from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Friday at Touro College in Central Islip. Tickets are $30.