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Protesters say county fails on promise to provide interpreters

Nassau County agencies and police are failing to provide interpreters to immigrant constituents two years after adopting language-access policies guaranteeing better access, advocates and residents said at a protest on Aug. 25, 2015, in Garden City. (Credit: News 12 Long Island)

Nassau County agencies and its police department are failing to provide interpreters to immigrant constituents two years after adopting policies guaranteeing better language access, advocates and residents said at a protest Tuesday in Garden City.

About two dozen demonstrators, immigrants and leaders of advocacy groups marched roughly a mile from county government offices to police headquarters and the office of County Executive Edward Mangano.

They said Executive Orders 67 and 72, put in place by Mangano, have been rendered meaningless by lack of implementation. The orders, signed in summer 2013, promise access to programs and services, including "competent translation and interpretation services" for residents with limited English proficiency.

"The county government claims to celebrate the diversity of our region, yet tens of thousands of members of our community are denied critical programs and services" such as food, housing assistance and police aid because of the language barrier, said Jason Starr, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union's Nassau County chapter. "This is unacceptable."

About 11 percent of Nassau's 1.2 million residents older than 5 speak English "less than very well," according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

The advocates said they assigned people to test the system by contacting county and police offices, speaking Spanish, Haitian Creole, Russian, Korean, Farsi and Chinese. They made 60 contacts in April to 20 agencies, mainly by telephone but with a few on-site visits as well. In July, the testers made about a dozen calls to agencies.

"They were routinely denied assistance," said Cheryl Keshner, an advocate with the Central Islip office of the Empire Justice Center, a statewide nonprofit that focuses on the legal rights of disadvantaged groups. The testers, she said, "were pretty much hung up on and laughed at, told we don't speak that language here."

Advocates said that police officials met with them two weeks ago and promised changes to connect people to interpreters in 30 to 45 days.

Mangano's office issued a statement by Herb Flores, deputy director of minority affairs, saying the administration had not received formal complaints of language-access problems.

"None of the departments which were allegedly tested by immigrant activist groups have received ANY complaints, notwithstanding that the language-access complaint form is available in English and the six other most commonly spoken languages in Nassau County," Flores' statement said.

"We have urged the advocacy groups to encourage those they represent to ensure that if they do in fact have a problem accessing programs and services due to a language barrier, they complete the complaint form and submit it to the particular department" so the county can investigate, he said.

Keshner said she had not heard of any such form. Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin said the complaint form is available in county agencies' offices.

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