Over 30 community leaders met with lawmakers for Language Access, Values Act, and more

Trenton, NJ [Monday, March 20] - New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice (NJAIJ) and key immigrants rights organizations celebrated a historic Senate vote on Language Access Bill S2459. The coalition had gathered as part of NJAIJ’s Trenton Takeover advocacy day to raise the visibility of high priority immigrant issues including the Values Act (S512/A1986), Language Access bill (S2459/A3837), and Data Disaggregation Bill (S2415/A3092). Over 30 advocates convened to place these immigrant priorities at the forefront of lawmakers’ minds in advance of the spring budget recess. NJAIJ members packed the Senate chamber and erupted in cheers as a coalition priority, the Language Access bill sponsored by Senator Teresa Ruiz, passed in a 23 to 13 floor vote.

“It was great to have the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice in the gallery as we passed this monumental legislation. New Jersey is 2nd in the nation in terms of people who speak a language other than English at home and it is to everyone’s benefit that residents are kept informed and are aware of services offered by the state regardless of what language they speak,” said Senate Majority Leader Ruiz (D-Essex). “This legislation takes a slow and deliberate approach to improving the state’s language access by gradually requiring state agencies to begin offering translations in five additional languages each year over the span of the three-year rollout. When people are in need, and especially in crisis, they should be able to connect to the resources available to them.” 

“The Senate vote on language access gives marginalized communities in New Jersey a voice,” said Madina P. Ouedraogo, MPA-PNP, Government Affairs Manager for the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “They have been silenced for too long, and they need language assistance to ensure they are able to access the critical resources they deserve.”

“Language Access bill (S2459) is important because New Jerseyans who are not English proficient should be treated with dignity and respect, and be provided translation and interpretation in order to take equal part in society,” said Lady Jimenez Torres, Policy Director for New Jersey Consortium for Immigrant Children. “ I look forward to seeing this bill move to the Assembly, where we will continue to urge legislators to vote yes and represent the voices of so many more New Jerseyans.” 

Nearly one in four New Jerseyans is an immigrant, and a third of New Jersey households speak a language other than English. For a state that speaks over 155 languages, language assistance for New Jerseyans has been long overdue. S2459’s prime sponsors also include Senators Pou and Cruz-Perez, and co-sponsor Senator Johnson.

“If people like me don’t come to Trenton, lawmakers won’t be able to understand how these issues affect real families like mine,” said Claudia Cabrera Wind Of The Spirit Immigrant Resource Center. “I’m proud to be here today because too often, voices like mine are ignored.”

Prior to the historic vote, NJAIJ members had gathered to advocate for issues and priorities that are important to their communities. Members were welcomed by Assemblymember Annette Quijano (LD-20) in an opening address. In her remarks, the Assembly Member encouraged NJAIJ members, saying, “It’s really important that you come here to Trenton and voice your opinions. My colleagues need to see individuals and hear diverse perspectives. This is the house of the people - The People’s House!” 

Throughout the day, NJAIJ members held legislative meetings with multiple Assembly Members and Senators. High on advocates’ list was the Values Act, a bill that would provide critical privacy protections for immigrants when accessing State services and benefits. Advocates say that both Language Access and Values Act serve to expand access to services and welcome immigrant communities to take part in the public programs and services already available to them. Currently, both the lack of access and threat of deportation serve as a double-edged sword, cutting many New Jerseyans out of the programs and resources they are otherwise entitled to.

“It’s important to be in Trenton today alongside our immigrant rights partners to make sure our voices and our policy priorities are heard loud and clear by politicians who represent all residents. As one of the most diverse states in the nation, New Jersey can lead the way by enacting policies that prioritize equity and continue to build on the state’s commitment to create a more welcoming and accessible home for all New Jerseyans, from language access legislation to ensure all communities have equitable access to information and resources, to advancing the New Jersey Values Act to ensure immigrant New Jerseyans can interact with state and local agencies without fear of their information being shared with ICE,said ACLU-NJ Campaign Strategist, Ami Kachalia.

For a state like New Jersey where so many speak a first language other than English, it was important to me that I made sure that my lawmakers could see the faces of the communities that would be empowered by expanded language access. Our presence in Trenton was known today, and as a result, we were able to watch the Language Access Bill pass out of the Senate. But we have more work to do. We still need protections through the Values Act, and to make sure monied interests can’t drown out our voices in elections,” said Serges Demefack, Coordinator of American Friends Services Committee’s End Detention and Deportation Project.

But at the same time advocates celebrated passage of the Language Access bill, they lamented the backwards progress on election reform, namely the passage of S2866, the confusingly named Elections Transparency Act. That bill significantly changes campaign contribution limits, guts local pay-to-play laws, and reduces the statute of limitations for violations from 10 years to 2 – less than a single election cycle.

"We enthusiastically commend the Senate for passing S2459, the language access bill, to make our democracy more accessible to New Jersey’s wonderfully diverse population. We are eager to see this bill move forward, and hopefully soon, become law,” said Nuzhat Chowdhury, Sr. Counsel in the Democracy & Justice Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “At the same time, it’s disturbing that the Senate also passed the so-called Election Transparency Act. At a time when New Jersey should be expanding and strengthening democracy, S2866 will only increase New Jersey’s problems with money in politics and make it harder to hold violators of campaign finance laws accountable. We should be building a democracy that gives us, the people, more power – not taking away that voice and giving it to the already powerful, who often don’t represent New Jerseyans in the most need -- especially those of color. We call on the Assembly to pull this harmful bill and work with democracy advocates across the state on legislation that will move our democracy forward.”

"We are delighted to witness the passing of S2459 through the NJ Senate. Language access impacts many NJ communities and we need a real investment in making sure that all people, regardless of their preferred language, have access to government forms," said Jason O. Ajiake, Advocacy and Community Outreach Coordinator at the Palestinian American Community Center. "Today we are one step closer toward that goal.
We also successfully testified in support of a resolution that will designate January as Muslim Heritage Month. This legislation is especially important because New Jersey has the highest Muslim population in America. Diversity is a gift, and we all benefit from celebrating each other’s unique experiences and contributions.”

“The Language Access bill is huge for communities like ours. For too long, our voices have been shut out. But at the same time that the Language Access bill passed the Senate, the Elections Transparency Act (S2866) passed, and other key priorities, like the Values Act, have stalled,” said Erik Cruz-Morales, the Policy and Advocacy Manager with New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “Today is a major milestone, but our work isn’t over yet. We must empower our communities to speak up for the priorities that matter most to them. We will continue to advocate so our voices are heard.”

The New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice is the state’s largest immigration coalition, bringing together over 50 member organizations to fight for policies that empower and protect immigrants.