Updated: May 1
By Judy D’Mello
The crammed pews of Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor one evening last week served as a reminder of the community's deep concern over current immigration policies, which has only heightened following the April 9 arrest of Luis Marin-Castro, a 31-year-old employee of Wainscott Main Wine and Spirits and a sommelier at Nick and Toni's restaurant who has lived in East Hampton for 20 years.
The particular issue that the public has come to focus on is the seemingly greater discretion now allocated to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, raising questions about the extent of that agency's powers and the rights of its detainees.
To that end, Organizacion Latino-Americana, an advocacy group for the Latino community on the East End, hosted a part-instructional, part-rallying immigration forum at the church on April 25. Minerva Perez, the organization's executive director, presided at the gathering, which drew several South Fork activists, including April Gornik and Toni Ross.
President Trump has declared that anyone living in the country illegally is a target for arrest and deportation, and the number of immigration arrests has gone up by more than 40 percent this year. While the Obama administration deported record numbers of undocumented immigrants, federal agents at the time were ordered to focus on serious criminals and recent arrivals. The current administration has erased those guidelines, allowing ICE agents to arrest and deport anyone here illegally.
Freed of past legal constraints and bolstered by a stricter approach to immigration offenses, ICE is operating more like secret police, swooping down on deportees in unmarked cars, or knocking on doors of private homes while wearing civilian clothes, Ms. Perez said.
Christopher Worth, an immigration lawyer based in East Quogue, said at the meeting that the current tactics of "arrest everyone first, ask questions later" violate immigrants' constitutional rights and constitute racial profiling. Furthermore, unlike in criminal court, immigrants facing deportation are not appointed public defenders.
"They are using unscrupulous tactics," said Ms. Perez.
Mr. Worth offered some advice: Don't open the door to anyone you don't recognize, he said. "Once you open your door, it's an invitation." As such, law officials can say they were willingly invited in and therefore did not require a warrant.
Instead, he suggested, if a language barrier exists, "have a printed card ready that asks who they are, the reason for the visit, and if they possess a warrant. Simply slip it under the door."
He also stressed that no one can be randomly pulled over in his or her car without having committed an infraction or driving through a designated security checkpoint. "If they pull you over for no other reason than suspicion," he said, "they cannot make an arrest."
The use of ruses is nothing new to law enforcement, but it is problematic in areas that are heavily populated by immigrants, such as the East End, where police and elected officials have tried for decades to distinguish the local law enforcement officials from federal immigration agents. There has been a concerted effort to build trust among the immigrant community so that they can interact with police here without fear of deportation. That appears to have shifted, Ms. Perez said.
"We must insist that our local police disentangle themselves from ICE," she said at the meeting, drawing applause. "Citizens should speak out at local town board meetings."
She urged everyone to demand that town and village police officers build trust among residents so that anyone, regardless of immigration status, can feel safe in reporting a crime. Otherwise, as Charlie Beck, the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, said in a Los Angeles Times interview, "a shadow population" that fears interaction with law enforcement is created, and it becomes an easy target for abuse or extortion because of a fear of contacting the police.
Putting pressure on local authorities was a major part of the meeting, and Ms. Perez circulated three petitions for those in attendance to sign and state that they "stand with OLA" on all three issues. She will present the signed petitions to local and state officials.
"My timeline is yesterday," she said during a phone conversation on Friday. "I want to get these in front of officials now."
The first petition, which she believes is paramount in protecting a person's constitutional rights, demands that ICE officials present a judicial warrant rather than an administrative one when making an arrest. The difference between warrants is significant, she said, as a judicial warrant is an official court document, usually with the designation of a specific court and signed by a judge. It serves as evidence that there has been due process backed by probable cause.
An administrative warrant, meanwhile, is simply a document signed by an ICE agent stating that a person is being designated for possible arrest and possible deportation proceedings. An administrative warrant is not signed by a judge, nor does it pass constitutional muster.
"An administrative warrant," she said, "is an absolute violation of our Fourth Amendment," which guarantees "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. . . ."
The second petition she circulated goes back to the point of demanding better communication and trust-building between local law enforcement and community members. It also insists that live translation services be available at all town and village offices.
The final petition is one that has been on the table for a while, asking that public transportation be improved so that working people, students, and the elderly, many of whom do not have the luxury of owning or leasing a car, can still be a vital part of the community.
Ms. Perez said that she is urgently pushing forward the petitions simply because "something's got to give. How can we continue to add fuel to the fire and then say, 'Oh, we have a fire?' " She referred to the fear and uncertainty that have spread among undocumented residents, many of whom have lived here for decades.
"They're messing up a beautiful thing," Ms. Perez said of the symbiosis that has existed for years in this community, which openly beckoned undocumented immigrants to work in the boomtown of construction and service jobs that have defined the South Fork, but which now, in the wake of suddenly more conservative politics and rewritten national policies, is penalizing them. For the very people who helped build this community, those policies, she said, have turned every waking day into a gamble.
"If I hear about an influx one more time," she said, "I'll scream. Immigrants have been coming out here for a very long time."
Underscoring her point is a recent statistic that emerged from an informal survey conducted by the Springs School: Ninety-nine percent of its current eighth graders, who will soon leave Springs for high school, were born in the United States.