Congresswoman Meng Presents Solutions to Thwart Mail Theft 

Two mail thieves were arrested less than a mile away from Maspeth’s post office. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

By Iryna Shkurhan | 

To combat a surge in mail theft, Congresswoman Grace Meng was joined by NYPD’s 104th Precinct and the United States Postal Inspection Service in Maspeth to spread tips on how residents can safeguard their mail. 

In June, two mail thieves were arrested on 60th Road and Mount Olivet Crescent for allegedly stealing mail, which was captured on video by a local resident and shared on social media. 

“This issue of mail theft is something that our office, and the NYPD and Postal Inspector, have been constantly hearing about,” said Meng outside of Maspeth’s Post Office on 69th St. last Wednesday. “There have been over 600 cases reported this year just in my congressional district alone. And those are just the cases that we have heard about.”

While Meng’s district, which encompasses much of central Queens, has seen growing mail and identity theft, the issue has been prevalent across the nation. 

Congresswoman Meng is working with the USPIS and the NYPD to combat the issue. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

In February, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network under the U.S Department of Treasury reported that check fraud reports filed by banks nearly doubled to 680,000 from 350,000 in 2021. Some scammers also resort to check washing – erasing the name of the recipient and replacing it with their own name or entity – which allows them to deposit the cash directly into their own bank account. 

Mail theft increased by 161 percent from March 2020 to February 2021, according to complaints received by the United States Postal Inspection Service. And over 1,000 arrests have been made since 2017. 

John Del Giudice, Assistant Inspector in Charge for the New York Division of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, announced that over $1.2 million has been allocated in New York to purchase and install high security collection boxes. Nationwide, 12,000 of these new boxes will be installed. 

This is not the first time the USPS is having to alter the design of postal boxes to combat mail theft. In 2018, the agency replaced the pull down handle on blue postal boxes with a slender slot with metal teeth after a rise in mail fishing. Meng says that the USPS moved promptly that year to update all the boxes in her congressional district. 

“We’re grateful for the Postal Service for making those necessary changes. However, these thieves are getting smarter, and they are getting more creative,” said Meng. 

The new target is green relay boxes, which postal workers use to store bags of mail during their route. They are more commonly used in urban areas where carriers walk instead of drive. Letter carriers have been targeted for the key that opens these boxes, which can be copied and used to unlock any green box.  

Letter carriers have been targeted for the key which can open any green relay mailbox. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

The Joint Project Safe Delivery initiative will replace 49,000 antiquated aero locks on relay boxes with electronic locks across the country. Meng says that she has requested that Queens be prioritized in the replacement project due to the high rate of cases in the borough.  

In April, Meng also introduced the USPS Subpoena Authority Act with fellow Congresswoman Nicole Maliotakis, who represents Staten Island and a sliver of South Brooklyn. The bipartisan bill seeks to give the USPS more authority to subpoena information about mail theft, including bank records, surveillance videos to build cases against criminal organizations. Currently, the USPS has limited authority to crack down on mail theft syndicates. 

Meng relayed that she has received many complaints from constituents who fell victim to mail theft and had important documents, checks and credit card information stolen. Consequently she said that individuals in her district have been scammed out of thousands of dollars and been impacted by other types of financial fraud. 

“In 2017, postal inspectors started to see an increase in mail theft and we increased our investigative resources and focused on strengthening partnerships with the NYPD, state and federal prosecutors,” said Giudice. “Our next step is working with the postal service engineers to develop a high security collection box to prevent that.”

The USPIS is asking residents to follow their tips to reduce their risk of mail theft. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

The USPIS has also been working to increase public awareness and speed safety tips through social media and neighborhood presentations at community board meetings. 

Deputy Inspector Kevin Coleman, the Commanding Officer of the NYPD’s 104th Precinct, briefly shared some tips to safeguard mail. He encouraged residents to avoid leaving mail sitting in their mailboxes as it can significantly reduce chances of being victimized. 

Directly depositing mail in blue postal boxes should also be avoided. Instead, he encouraged residents to hand any mail directly to a letter carrier or deliver it inside the post office. If mail must be deposited inside a postal box, it should be dropped as close to the pickup time as possible, which is written on the box. Officials encourage utilizing a permanent ink pen if mailing a check to prevent washing. 

Deputy Inspector Giudice also encouraged signing up for informed delivery, a free service which sends a daily digest email that shows what mail and packages are scheduled to arrive so residents can be aware if mail is missed.

U.S Health Secretary Visits Flushing to Discuss Culturally Competent Healthcare

The U.S Secretary of Health joined Congresswoman Meng and local leaders in Flushing for a roundtable discussion. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan.

By Iryna 

The U.S Secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, visited Flushing on June 30 to join Congresswoman Grace Meng and immigrant advocates for a roundtable discussion on language access and culture competency in healthcare. 

The dialogue centered around how to better serve immigrant communities, especially those who speak languages of limited diffusion, with physical and mental health resources in their spoken language. Advocates say that current care and availability of public health info for immigrants whose primary language is not English or Spanish falls short, and can be disastrous in emergencies. 

The issue is especially consequential in Queens where immigrants speak over 160 different languages, making it the language capital of the world according to the World Economic Forum. Close to a quarter of New Yorkers, about 1.8 million residents, are also not proficient in English, according to city data.

“80 percent of our patients want their care not in English. And we’re not talking about interpretation or translation, those can be helpful on the edges but what they really want is their care with someone who speaks the languages,” said Kaushal Challa, CEO of Charles B. Wang Community Health Center, which focuses on primary care in various offices across Flushing and Chinatown. “I’m not going to say that you cannot establish trust if you don’t speak the same language, but it’s a major, major component.”

The discussion, held at Flushing’s Glow Cultural Center on 41st Ave, was especially timely, as June’s Immigrant Heritage Month comes to an end. Meng and Becerra were joined by representatives from several community advocacy groups, including South Asian Council for Social Services and Women for Afghan Women.

“I remember growing up and translating for my parents when they needed to see a doctor,” said Secretary Becerra, who was confirmed into Biden’s cabinet in March 2021 as the first Latino to hold the office. “While I am proud to have been able to help, no child should have to feel the weight of translating complex medical terminology. And no parent should have to share their private medical history with their young child.” 

Since stepping into the role, he has worked with state governments to push providers and insurers to increase language access. He says he is no stranger to working with immigrant communities after representing the downtown Los Angeles area as a congressman for over two decades. 

Meng, who represents a significant chunk of northern Queens, which includes Flushing, Fresh Meadows and Forest Hills, previously worked with Becerra to open the city’s largest vaccination site in the center of Elmhurst in 2021. 

Everyone agreed that during the pandemic, immigrants whose primary language is not English had difficulty even getting the most basic information on Covid-19, such as where and how to get tested.

“We found that, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, how limited access to language services really hurt folks,” said Theodore Moore, Vice President of Policy at New York Immigration Coalition. “And even in New York City, where you have one of the best language access policies in the entire country, we couldn’t get information past English or Spanish.”

City data also shows that multilingual immigrant communities in the outer boroughs were hit the hardest by Covid-19. Central Queens neighborhoods such as Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, where more minority and indigenous languages are spoken became the “epicenter of the epicenter” with thousands of cases within the first month of the outbreak. 

Meng’s proposed legislation, COVID-19 Language Access Act, would require federal agencies to translate memos in the top 20 spoken languages during times of emergency. Two language access bills, spearheaded by Councilmember Julie Won, passed in the city late last year. The bills were also born out of an emergency, when warnings about the severity of flooding from Hurricane Ida were distributed in English, resulting in the deaths of eleven Queens residents who died when their basement apartments flooded. 

“We need more authority to be able to tell health care providers, health insurance companies, that they must do a better job of communicating with their patients,” said Becerra. “And with those additional authorities that Congresswoman Meng could provide us, we have more leverage to try to move in that direction.”

Both representatives expressed commitment to increasing accessibility to healthcare for immigrant communities. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan.

Moore also noted that there is rarely accessibility in languages from the African continent. And indigenous languages, which are spoken by many new migrants arriving from Central and South America, are even harder to find translators for. 

To address this inequality, his team created three language access cooperatives: one for African languages, Asian languages and one dedicated to Central and South American indigenous languages. Immigrants who need access to information in a language of limited diffusion, may not be able to get it from city services, but can rely on groups like New York Immigration Coalition to support them with translated resources. 

A big chunk of the discussion was devoted to mental health, which has risen to a level of prominent awareness and resulted in an increase in funding from federal, state and local governments. While Becerra pointed out that the federal government does not control or manage healthcare, it does have the power to work with states in guiding new initiatives. 

He discussed the wide impact that 988, a centralized phone number for mental health crises that connects people with local suicide and crisis hotlines, has had across the country. Over two million people called or texted 988 within its first six months of operation, indicating a significant demand for crisis level mental health assistance, according to officials.

Some call centers have Spanish speaking staff members, but an official Spanish speaking line is still in the process of being established. Becerra said that in the future, he hopes the service will be able to offer more languages. 

“A lot of the times when providers are talking to the patient, they’re talking to translation services, they’re not looking at the patient’s eyes,” said Carmen Garcia, Community Health Worker at Make the Road. “And that is very important because those people want to be seen and we also want to see eye to eye and understand.”

In her experience working with patients who speak a different language, she notices that translators do not always translate in the way that she asks her questions. Garcia says that she will use motivational interviewing techniques and applications to try to get to the root issue of patients’ distress, which get lost in translation. 

Garcia, and other advocates present, shared that expanded recruitment and retention of healthcare staff that speaks the languages of the community members they serve should be prioritized. Besides language, an awareness of cultural backgrounds and circumstances can be just as important when delivering healthcare services. 

Prioritizing and promoting equitable access to language assistance for health services to people with limited English proficiency is crucial for our immigrant neighborhoods, and I am excited to partner with Secretary Becerra on this effort,” said Congresswoman Meng. “I thank the Secretary for returning to Queens to shine a light on the importance of language accessibility in our healthcare system.”

Congresswoman Meng also introduced the bipartisan Mental Health Workforce and Language Access Act in 2021, which would establish a grant program to deliver federal funds to community health centers to recruit and employ bilingual behavioral health specialists. The current retention gap has been attributed to a lack of competitive salaries compared to private hospitals, and high rates of burnout in the healthcare field. 

“It doesn’t matter if you have access to coverage, if the person next to you doesn’t,” said Moore. “Quite frankly, you’re in the same boat as them and we’re all in this together.”

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