In recent years, states and localities from Arizona and Alabama to Hazleton, Pennsylvania, have passed laws and ordinances to make immigrants’ lives unbearable—what some call “attrition through enforcement.” Suffolk County, NY (located in the central and eastern portion of Long Island) was until recently a paradigmatic case of such an approach.
Only one week after a historic election in which Latino voters played a deciding role in choosing the president, Suffolk County’s new county executive, Steve Bellone, signed an executive order guaranteeing translation and interpretation services to residents with limited English proficiency. The result: a potential model for how pro-immigrant advocates can work with elected officials to change the tenor of immigration politics in this country.
Until last year, Suffolk County was dominated by County Executive Steve Levy, who frequently blamed undocumented immigrants for Suffolk’s problems, appearing with famed restrictionists like Lou Dobbs and supporting legislative proposals that targeted immigrants. Levy and other officials fanned the flames of nativist sentiment in a tense climate that became rife with hate crimes against Latinos, culminating in the tragic hate murder of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero.
In this context, the signing of today’s executive order reflects a remarkable turn of events. Under the new policy, county agencies must, within one year, translate all essential public documents and forms into the top-six languages spoken by limited-English proficient (LEP) residents and provide interpretation services to all LEP residents.
Instead of blaming immigrants for the county’s problems, the new administration has recognized the constant struggle of LEP residents to communicate with government officials in police precincts, county health centers and social service agencies. These communication breakdowns produce dangerous misunderstandings that undermine public safety, public health and overall government efficiency.
With the new executive order, the county executive explicitly recognized the rights and needs of LEP individuals (Suffolk has roughly 120,000), who principally speak Spanish, Italian, Polish, Chinese, French Creole, and Portuguese. This order—one of the first in a suburban U.S. county, and the first pro-immigrant policy win nationally since last week’s historic election—represents a pro-active effort to make county government accessible to all and ensure compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on national origin and language.
So, how has Suffolk’s political climate changed so much, and how could other similar states and localities push back against the national wave of restrictionist politics? The answer is grassroots politics that combines community organizing, electoral mobilization and smart public policy.
First, in the wake of the Lucero killing, pro-immigrant advocates refused to forget the dangerous rhetoric that had contributed to what the Southern Poverty Law Center deemed a “climate of fear” in Suffolk. They organized rallies, marches and vigils to ensure that politicians and residents knew that scapegoating immigrants was unconscionable and would not be tolerated.
Second, the Long Island Civic Engagement Table (LICET)—a coalition that I coordinate that is led by Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change, the Central American Refugee Center, and the Long Island Immigrant Alliance—and others also engaged in non-partisan voter mobilization to make sure that immigrant voters’ voices would be heard at the polls. During the County Executive campaign, groups came together to sensitize candidates for the open county executive seat to the needs of immigrant communities. And, in November, LICET co-hosted a packed candidate forum that explicitly raised the issue of language access. Then-candidate Bellone recognized: “We don’t have nearly enough translators right now to effectively work with the community. We need to do this at every level of county government, at every agency.”
Following his election, County Executive Bellone demonstrated his leadership by beginning to shift the rhetoric on immigration, celebrating immigrants in lieu of scapegoating them.
The transfer of power alone, however, was not sufficient for this policy victory. Community organizing and electoral politics created a political opportunity, but advocates also had to work with the new administration to craft sound policy.
Following Bellone’s victory, LICET, its core organizations and allies like the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and the Center for Popular Democracy engaged with the new county executive to help him live up to his word. Our coalition, which included community members, community organizers, social service providers and lawyers, expressed the moral and legal imperative for a comprehensive policy while drawing on our issue expertise to help the administration work through legal details and financial analyses. In sum, we shifted from contention with an irresponsible administration to cooperation with a new county leader.
The lesson is clear: to effect substantial change on policies related to immigrants, progressives must combine creative grassroots mobilization, electoral efforts that help shift the political environment and sound public policy development. And, when opportunities for collaboration with elected officials emerge, advocates must be able to shift quickly from opposition to collaboration.
Today, pro-immigrant advocates applaud County Executive Bellone’s commitment to opening the doors of government to all residents. But we must also look hard for other opportunities around the country to use these same tools to advance policies like language access that demonstrate government’s commitment to showing respect to, and recognizing the dignity of, immigrant communities.
*Daniel Altschuler is a guest blogger to AQ Online and is the coordinator of the Long Island Civic Engagement Table.