Updated: May 1, 2022
By Christopher Walsh
Immigrants ask for protection in uncertain times
“Todos tienen mucho miedo.”
Patricia’s message — everybody is very afraid — was delivered, through an interpreter, to the East Hampton Town Board last Thursday.
Organizacion Latino-Americana of Long Island, a nonprofit that promotes social, economic, cultural, and educational development for the region’s Latino communities, had urged people to attend the meeting.
Most who heeded the call were immigrants or their advocates, who relayed, through more than an hour of gripping testimony, what they, their families, and acquaintances have experienced over the last 18 months.
At a Southampton Town Board meeting on Sept. 25, OLA, as the group is known, called for enacting legislation it is drafting, the Peaceful Communities Protection Act, that would codify a policy of noncooperation between the town Police Department and the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
“It is not enough to sigh and lament the federal bad guys who are picking off nonviolent members of our community in an unprecedented ‘open season’ approach and say that we are doing enough,” Minerva Perez, OLA’s director, told the board. “Local law enforcement agencies are being pulled into the fray, and it’s harming our communities. . . . This is a time like no other. All minds and all hearts are needed at this leadership table to navigate our town through this difficult and dark time.”
The Trump administration’s hardline policies regarding undocumented immigrants, and remarks by the president that many construe as racist, have fostered a climate of terror among the South Fork’s Latino community, its effect dramatically played out at Town Hall as one speaker after another testified to their fear of interacting with law enforcement or government officials, fear of racism among the town’s residents, fear even of leaving home.
The fear of being detained for a nonviolent offense, such as driving without a license, brings consequences, they said: people too apprehensive to report a crime to the police, traumatized children who wonder if their parents will disappear. “The bad and violent people are not afraid of anything,” Patricia said. “But the good people are very afraid.” She did not provide her last name.
“I worry that one day when school’s over, my mom won’t be there to pick me up because bad people hurt her, or because she saw a crime and they’re trying to hurt her or something,” Angie, an East Hampton fifth grader, told the board. “When I see her every day, I feel better knowing she’s still here. But sometimes it’s not the same for other kids. Sometimes their parents get hurt or get deported, and I worry it will happen to me, too.”
Angie, poised and mature beyond her 10 years, was born at Southampton Hospital. Her parents are from Ecuador. “I feel afraid sometimes that police officers are going to arrest my mom and deport her back to where she came from and that I’m going to be without her. I really worry about that stuff,” she told The Star after the meeting. “I really want to be with my mom.”
“It’s not comfortable to feel nervous and scared every single day,” she said. “It’s really a lot of work, and puts a lot of stress on you.”
An emotional Councilman David Lys, himself the father of a fifth grader and whose father immigrated from Indonesia and became a United States citizen, told the girl that “You should never live in fear,” that “we will make sure that our town is safe for all. . . . Don’t ever stop being brave.”
Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc told Ms. Perez and other speakers that the Police Department does not honor detainer directives issued by ICE or Customs Border Protection. “The only case in which we would hold somebody would be if there’s a judicial warrant in place, that there’s probable cause that the individual has previously been convicted and previously removed from the country, and that specifically there was a serious crime involved,” he said. “Our basic premise is that unless every member of this community feels safe to call police, to report a crime against themselves or others, none of us are safe.”
The supervisor noted multiple contributions by immigrants and “so much to gain from the diversity of our community,” and the irony of the present circumstance in a town that has welcomed immigrants for 370 years. “To break apart that fabric of our community and the investment that we’ve all made through schooling children and others, that is truly something that we support pushing against,” he said.
He pledged to review the proposed legislation put forth by OLA and compare it with the town’s current policy, which he said, is closely aligned with it. “We don’t ask for immigration status for anyone stopped for any reason. . . . We understand the impacts of having people fearful of their status in reporting crimes, against themselves and against others. Those who have citizenship and don’t have any potential issues with that are at risk when people observe crimes against them and are not willing to come forward to testify.”
Andrew Strong, OLA’s counsel, said he was pleased to learn that the present policy and proposed legislation are similar, but said that there are practical reasons to codify a policy. More than 12 municipalities have been successfully sued as a result of honoring administrative retainers — “ICE does not indemnify towns,” he said. For that reason, the New York State Sheriffs’ Association and the state attorney general have both recommended that local law enforcement not honor administrative warrants, he said.
“As a nation we are going through a moment right now of unprecedented negative rhetoric and a policy assault on some of the most vulnerable members of the community,” Mr. Strong said. “For that population, this is a moment of unimaginable crisis. It’s critical to say publicly, ‘these are our values: tolerance, community, and affording basic human rights protections for everyone living here peacefully.’ ”
Legislation “makes a meaningful difference to the people that are caught in this atmosphere of fear that is unfortunately pervasive,” Mr. Strong said. “Now is the moment. The crisis is here. There’s hard work to do.”