Updated: May 1, 2022
By Michael Wright
Outrage over a recent wave of detentions of local residents by officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement continued to swell this week among supporters of a Latino community that advocates say is being unfairly “hunted” by federal officers.
Swelling budgets and staffing levels in the past year, critics say, have pushed the focus of ICE beyond seeking to deport only those with violent criminal histories and no legal immigration status—those whom President Donald Trump has spotlighted to justify ramping up immigration enforcement agencies.
The resultant uptick in detention sweeps, say the Latino leaders and the families of those detained, has pulled apart families of U.S. citizens and sowed chronic fear in the lives of long-established members of the East End community.
Governor Andrew Cuomo last week lashed out at an ICE sweep that the agency said had led to the detention of 225 people in the New York region, and issued a “cease-and-desist” demand, threatening a lawsuit by the state.
Latino advocates from the East End were careful to note that changing federal policies, from a local level, is not likely within reach. They urged those impassioned by the recent arrests to channel their energy toward support efforts and outreach that can help local residents who are beset with fear or struggling to help a detained loved one.
At a gathering at Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor last week, leaders of Latino advocacy groups said that the recent sweeps show that ICE has turned its sights from violent criminals to anyone who has an arrest record—a single DWI, some from as many as 10 years ago, appears to have been a common trigger.
“This has now become a hunt, and our community is the prey,” Minerva Perez, president of Organizacion Latino-Americana, a community advocacy group, told the crowd on Wednesday, April 25. “But we are not here to talk about what ICE is doing, because that distracts us from what we can do to make a difference.”
Ms. Perez told the large crowd—which included congressional candidates, a number of local government officials and several prominent business owners—the best ways to help the local Latino community face the storm of detentions: lobby for a better support network of mental health services for fearful children, press local police to increase outreach to Latinos so that ICE detentions would not erode trust in local law enforcement, and press for improved language translation services for local police departments, and for better public services, like additional county buses, to help those struggling to navigate daily life.
Nonetheless, much of the conversation focused on tactics that immigration agents have used in recent arrests and how Latino residents can assert the legal rights they do have, documented or not.
Of particular concern were reports that ICE agents had pulled over cars on Flanders Road recently and detained passengers. How many, if any, people had been detained in such a way, Ms. Perez said she did not know, but the specter of federal agents shifting gears to randomly pulling over vehicles to check for undocumented immigrants raised accusations of racial profiling and illegal search and seizure.
However, this week a spokeswoman for ICE said that random stopping and searching of cars is not something the agency’s officers can do.
“Anytime ICE is out in the field, they have a target in mind,” said ICE’s New York region communications director, Rachael Yong Yow. “If they are pulling a car over, it’s because they saw the person get in the car, or they know the person may be in that car.
“We’re not profiling—we’re not looking for a certain type of person, a certain race of person,” she added. “Our last sweep included people from Ireland and Russia to Antigua and the Ukraine, people from all over the world.”
Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki confirmed this week that he contacted ICE after receiving calls about cars having been pulled over on Flanders Road near Hampton Bays, and that the agency had said its officers had stopped at least one vehicle. He said that he’d been told the stop, or stops, were related to the agency’s search for a particular person for whom the officers had a detention warrant.
Because ICE officers use unmarked vehicles, the chief acknowledged, there could be some worry about whether legitimate law enforcement officers were behind the wheel. He suggested that anyone with doubts about a car trying to pull them over could call 911 and drive to a well-lighted, open area.
He said he had suggested to ICE officials—who typically do not alert local law enforcement before conducting detention sweeps in local jurisdictions—that they begin to inform local police when they may be looking to pull over a vehicle, so that public safety dispatchers could inform a worried caller that the vehicle behind them is ICE officers.
“We want to make sure that everybody is safe and protected from people posing as law enforcement, which occasionally happens,” Chief Skrynecki said. “If ICE had given us the information that they were in the area, and we got a call from someone concerned about being pulled over, we’d be able to say, yes, that is an ICE vehicle and you should pull over.”
The rights the occupant of a car has if stopped and questioned by ICE officers were also debated at the meeting last week. At a home, Ms. Perez noted, officers may only enter if they have a warrant with reference to a specific address—and advocates for the immigrant community have printed cards that residents can give to officers saying they do not grant entry to the home if such a warrant is not presented.
Attorneys told the crowd that a car is a different story.
“They can say they have a reason to think the car has someone in it that they are looking for,” immigration attorney Chris Worth said at the OLA meeting. “Then they can ask questions that could lead to reasonable suspicion with regard to another person in the vehicle.”
In either instance, ICE officers may detain anyone else present who does not have valid immigration status, Ms. Yong Yow said—though she said that in most instances, if people do not already have an active deportation warrant issued for them, they would typically be processed, fingerprinted and released.
The longest-lasting impact of the tactics that ICE agents have applied in sweeps, advocates worried, was the chilling effect it may have on the willingness of undocumented immigrants to report other crimes to local police, for fear of inviting law enforcement—whose duties, they may not understand, diverge from those of ICE officers—to their homes.
Ms. Perez said that some cities have reported that crimes reported by Latino residents have dropped by as much as 40 percent since the Trump administration ordered more aggressive deportation efforts. She said her organization gets calls regularly from young girls, mostly U.S. citizens, who have been sexually assaulted and didn’t report the crimes to police, because they are afraid that if they bring the police to their houses, they will endanger relatives who are undocumented. “They pull back,” she said.
In the wake of the increase in ICE detentions—which some reports say have increased 40 percent nationally in the last 12 months, and have included several residents of the South Fork—heads of police departments across the East End have said that their goal is to make the difference clear between their duties and those of ICE, in hopes of discouraging that pull-back among Latino residents.
“Our policy starts with the notion that we would like to have and maintain a good relationship with all residents in our community, documented or undocumented,” Chief Skrynecki said. “We see those relationships are beneficial both to the police and the community, and we want the Latino community to feel comfortable reporting crimes to us.”
Ms. Perez said that while local law enforcement may be laboring to erase the division with the immigrant community, ICE agents and their quickly growing detention warrant lists clearly pay little heed to concerns about such side effects.
“They are not scrupulous,” she said of ICE. “They make their own rules.”