By Kitty Merrill
Since its founding in 2002, Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island (OLA), has been working with local crime victims. From that vantage point, this week OLA Executive Director Minerva Perez dubbed the launch of the District Attorney’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (OIA) announced by District Attorney Tim Sini, “a very important step for the Suffolk D.A. to take.”
The OIA comprises expert prosecutors and staff who will work with immigrant communities to investigate and prosecute crimes targeting them and address challenges faced by immigrant victims and witnesses, a release from Sini’s office explains.
“All residents of Suffolk County are entitled to have their safety and rights protected,” he said. “Unfortunately, all too often, members of immigrant communities are apprehensive to come forward when they have been victimized or witnessed a crime. As a result, such communities and individuals are particularly vulnerable to an assortment of criminal activity, including gang predation, human trafficking, and financial abuse. With the launch of this dedicated team, we want to send a message that we are here to help, regardless of your background or what language you speak. Every resident deserves equal access to justice and we are committed to making sure all victims and witnesses have the care and assistance they need when navigating the criminal justice system.”
“What we’ve been focused on the last six years has been tracking the access and process that child victims of sexual assault experience from the moment they report,” Perez informed. “ These are very challenging scenarios that require nuanced communication, trust building, and most importantly a coordinated response team that should have the D.A. at its center. We don’t have that. Yet. This move from the D.A. might get us closer.”
Designed to serve four primary roles, the OIA will first provide community outreach and education within immigrant communities. Second, the OIA will serve as a clearinghouse for complaints and inquiries coming from immigrant victims and advocates. Third, the OIA will provide support to all investigations and prosecutions office-wide in dealing with immigrant victims of crime. Fourth, the OIA will serve as a resource and repository for addressing immigration-related issues experienced by crime victims.
“Any expanded services to assist in ensuring the vulnerable have adequate access and appropriate assistance in the criminal justice system should be an improvement and help the immigrant community feel better protected and more willing to come forward to report crimes,” East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo said.
His counterpart in Southampton Town agreed. Chief Steven Skrynecki noted cases involving undocumented immigrants have a “uniqueness,” that includes a measure of hesitancy with regard to coming forward. “The district attorney having a special prosecutor to work through those with us can only be a good thing,” he said.
“I am pleased with the initiative of Suffolk County District Attorney Sini in setting an Office of Immigration Affairs,” Sister Mary Beth Moore of Centro Corazon de Maria, an immigrant advocacy group in Hampton Bays offered. “The investment in service and communication with the immigrant community is wise and greatly needed. I look forward to the feedback from the immigrants we accompany in our work of advocacy with the hope that they will experience better service from Suffolk County law enforcement.”
In support of OIA’s mission, the District Attorney’s Office is enhancing its ability to support immigrant communities by obtaining funding to hire a new Spanish-speaking victim advocate, a new full-time Spanish interpreter/translator, and Spanish-speaking paralegals, Sini announced. He’s designating an immigration consequences specialist within the Appeals and Training Bureau to assist assistant district attorneys in understanding the immigration consequences of particular crimes.
And, an email address and hotline to facilitate the reporting and investigation of crimes targeting immigrant victims has been established. Call 631-852-2950 or email ImmigrantAffairsDA@suffolkcountyny.gov.
Complaints reported to the OIA email address and hotline concerning schemes that commonly target or exploit immigrants will be reviewed by a supervisor assigned to the OIA who will work with prosecutors and law enforcement partners on the investigation and prosecution of crimes of this nature, including serving as a liaison with immigrant victims or their representatives.
Wage theft and other labor-related violations, false promises to sponsor work visas or to provide employment training for a fee, the production and purchase of false documents like driver’s licenses or Social Security cards, immigration fraud, including individuals who falsely represent themselves as “attorneys,” “lawyers,” “notarios,” “immigration specialists” or “public officials” and give legal advice or promise to process immigration paperwork; and individuals who pretend to be ICE agents and purport to offer special treatment or services are examples of schemes that target immigrants.
Sex crimes and crimes of violence in which immigrants are victims, will be referred to the appropriate bureau and law enforcement agency for investigation and prosecution. The OIA will continue to support immigrant crime victims and witnesses of all crimes, and to serve as a liaison to immigrant communities, the D.A. said.
OLA is currently working with seven survivors, Perez related. “Each of them has desperately needed OLA’s support to navigate these horrific crimes and much of the process after reporting them,” she explained, continuing, “While the D.A.’s office is dedicated to doing the best it can, without changes such as these, immigrant victims will not come forward or be as forthcoming. How we support child victims of sexual assault of all races and ethnicities needs to be a center point. It’s not only about the ultimate prosecution, but the entire process that survivors and often their families must endure.”