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East Hampton Pledges to Protect Immigrant Community

Updated: May 1, 2022

By Beth Young

Community members, mostly non-Latino, packed the East Hampton Town Board meeting room Thursday evening to ask the town board to take a stand on immigrant rights.

East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell, the son of immigrants who was raised in East Hampton, pledged Thursday night to not participate in President Donald Trump’s executive order allowing local police departments to serve as immigration officers.

He made the statements before a packed crowd of community members organized by Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island Executive Director Minerva Perez, who addressed the town board during the public comment period at its regular meeting.

Members of the mostly non-Latino crowd shared stories of friends and neighbors who were afraid to come to town hall to speak, or who had been advised by their attorneys to not appear in public, of undocumented friends who’d asked them to take care of their American-born children if they were deported and of mothers who are suicidal because they do not know what will happen the next time they check in with immigration authorities.

Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell (right) pledged support for immigrant rights, while Councilman Fred Overton (left) looked on.

"A recent executive order grants authority for local officials to enter into agreement with the federal government to perform the function of immigration officers in relation to the investigation, apprehension and detention of aliens. The Town of East Hampton will not enter into this agreement with the federal government,” Mr. Cantwell told the crowd early on in the meeting.

“I feel strongly about that. The policy of the town and police has not changed,” he said, adding that, in cases of serious crimes, the town police will cooperate with warrants from other agencies.

“People should be held accountable when it’s a serious crime, but our enforcement personnel are not immigration officers. That is not what we do. We do not seek out illegal immigrants,” he added.

Mr. Cantwell said federal immigration policies are currently in flux, and the town is seeking guidance from the New York State Attorney General’s office on how to respond to these changes.

“The earth is moving below our feet, moment by moment. We’re all in same boat when it comes to trying to understand what’s going on and how to deal with it,” he said, adding that he plans to continue a dialogue with community members on how to continue to protect immigrants.

“Many of our parents are immigrants. My mother and father were both immigrants. Immigrants are very important to our economy,” he said, adding that community policing only works when the public trusts the police. “We need to respect that and we intend to do that.”

Minerva Perez

Ms. Perez spoke passionately about the need for a judicial warrant before the town police cooperate with other agencies.

“I ask that you fully and without question abide by our United States Constitution,” she said, referencing routine traffic stops that can lead quickly to federal involvement for undocumented workers. “Search and seizure without a judicial warrant is unconstitutional and puts this town in potentially libelous situations.”

“To hold an individual at the request of federal immigration without being provided with a judicial warrant is not what we should be doing,” she said. “If their crimes were serious, immigration would have no trouble obtaining a warrant.”

“These good people of our community want only to get back to their lives, which mostly consist of helping to make sure this resort town runs smoothly in the summer,” she said. “When victims and witnesses fear calling for help, we are living in a community that does not resemble the diverse, imperfect, but peaceful community we knew only a few months ago. Please do not wait for the perfect time to come forward with your statements of support and strategy. There will be no perfect time but right now.”

Julia Chachere, a nurse/midwife at Hudson River Healthcare in Southampton said she has seen “mass fear and panic” among her clients in recent weeks.

Doula Julia Chachere and Clinical Social Worker Dora Romero.

Her co-worker, Clinical Social Worker Dora Romero, who came to the United States from Colombia 35 years ago, said one of her clients last week was told to bring her passport to an immigration appointment, and was planning to leave behind documents protecting her children and then drink poison before going to her appointment.

“We do see, day in and day out, the stress people are going through,” she said.

Architect Bill Chaleff said that two of his immigrant friends had been planning to accompany him to the meeting, but were advised not to by their attorney because they would have to give their names and the proceedings would be televised.

“You cannot be passive about this. It is critically important that there is a major outreach by the town. These are the people who make this town work,” he said.

Robert Brody, a volunteer English as a Second Language teacher, said he’d asked his students to address the town board but they were too frightened to come.

John Leonard, a Sag Harbor attorney who has regular business in East Hampton courts, said in the past few weeks he’s had “mothers crying in his office” and he is helping people make plans for potential deportation.

He pointed out that, under state vehicle and traffic law, the second time you are cited for driving without a license it becomes a misdemeanor.

“We certainly would not want an unlicensed operator charge to be a basis for deportation,” he said, adding that immigrants shouldn’t have to rely on Suffolk County’s “Byzantine public transportation system.”

“People should be able to go to work,” he said, adding that the community should pressure the state to change the vehicle and traffic law.

Community members listened to the testimony.

Dan Hartnett, a bilingual social worker in the East Hampton School District, choked up with emotion when he told of the students and parents he sees every day who are afraid their families will be separated by immigration authorities. He said his office is putting together preparedness packets for families with information about their rights.

“Our community is built on trust,” he said. “We need to trust our institutions, especially the police.”

Mr. Cantwell said that he does feel a responsibility to make East Hampton a safe place for immigrants.

“We may not make all this right, but right now it is important that we come together as a community,” he said. “We all have a responsibility to assure people living here that it’s going to be ok.”

Ms. Perez asked the supervisor to think carefully about what local police activities can have an effect on immigration.

For example, she said local police departments often fingerprint victims and witnesses, and those fingerprints can be sent to federal authorities and be used to track people.

“We do have a responsibility in the way local law enforcement is interacting with people here,” she said.

OLA is also holding a community forum on immigration and civil rights next Tuesday, Feb. 21 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Bridgehampton’s Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Church at 2350 Montauk Highway, and the group is planning to raise similar concerns at Southampton Town’s next board meeting on Feb. 28 at 6 p.m.

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