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Local Lawmakers Say Immigration Enforcement Is Not The Job Of Local Police

Updated: May 1, 2022

By Michael Wright

In a week when immigrant advocacy groups staged protests around the region against President Donald Trump’s efforts to ramp up enforcement of immigration laws, the South Fork’s lawmakers said Southampton and East Hampton towns will not deputize their local police to enforce immigration laws.

Both East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell and Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said this week that they see no reason for their towns’ respective law enforcement agencies to change the level of cooperation with the federal Department of Homeland Security that they’ve practiced for years by taking advantage of a federal policy allowing local police to be deputized as Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Both supervisors, however, said their departments will continue to cooperate and communicate with federal enforcers with regard to immigration status information about people who are arrested for “a serious crime,” as Mr. Cantwell put it—separating the towns from the so-called “sanctuary cities” that have pledged not to share any information with federal immigration authorities.

Mr. Cantwell was blunt about the issue, saying the town will not change its longstanding policy with regard to cooperation with ICE.

“The Town of East Hampton will not enter into such an agreement with the federal government,” Mr. Cantwell told a standing-room-only crowd in East Hampton Town Hall on Thursday night, February 16, drawing applause. “Our enforcement personnel are not immigration officers. It’s not what they do. We do not seek out illegal immigrants during enforcement actions.”

The Southampton Town Police Department will have a new chief taking its reins later this year, and Mr. Schneiderman said specific town policies will have to be discussed further. But he was highly critical of the idea of deputizing local officers and extending the amount of time local agencies detain those they have arrested for minor crimes.

He recalled that in 2004, when he was a Suffolk County legislator, former County Executive Steve Levy had proposed having some County Police officers deputized as federal immigration agents. “It was extremely volatile at the county level, and it led to tremendous fear in the Latino community,” Mr. Schneiderman said on Monday. “The debate then was the same as it is now. It’s not a matter of not communicating or of not cooperating with ICE—we’re conferring with them all the time on criminal matters.

“I don’t think anyone is going to argue that someone who came here illegally and commits a violent crime should stay—they should be deported,” he continued. “There’s a case to be made that that isn’t the case with people who haven’t caused any problems. But I prefer [immigration policy] stay at the national level where it belongs. At the local level, it’s important our resources are focused on keeping people safe.”

The statements by the two supervisors were spurred by an executive order last month by President Trump instructing the Department of Homeland Security to advance the effort to deputize municipal police departments to help the federal agency enforce immigration laws. The order created no new federal policy or law and did not expand the powers or mission of federal immigration authorities. Local police nationwide have had the ability to be deputized for more than 20 years, but few departments have ever taken on the duty, largely because of the logistical burdens it would create.

Despite rumors of incidents locally, there have been no credible reports so far on the South Fork of a widening of existing enforcement policy, which focuses on undocumented people facing criminal charges. Nonetheless, with the Trump administration’s aggressive stance on immigration sowing fear of immigration sweeps and sudden detainments solely for immigration issues, stories this week abounded of families living in fear.

At an East Hampton Town Board meeting last week, supporters heaped pleas on the board to assuage the concerns of many immigrants.

Minerva Perez, executive director of Organizacion Latino-Americana, or OLA, a Latino community advocacy organization, asked town lawmakers to instruct police not to abide by 48-hour detention requests from ICE on individuals who have run afoul of the law for only minor issues, like vehicle and traffic law infractions. Ms. Perez said that if fear of immigration enforcement in any interaction with police finds roots, it could lead members of the immigrant community to withdraw from interaction with law enforcement, with disastrous consequences.

“The rupture of trust that vulnerable members of this community could have with law enforcement and the town is a breach of trust for us all when victims and witnesses begin to fear calling for help,” she said. “We owe it to ourselves to protect what we have and not accept an agenda that has no care for what we know to be a beautiful and safe community.”

Mr. Cantwell agreed that if immigrants fear the role of local police, it is counterproductive to protecting public safety. “There is a significant downside when people are underground, when they are afraid to report crimes,” he said. “That doesn’t work to benefit law enforcement in our community. That’s the kind of fear we have to overcome.”

Supporters asked the town to take a proactive stance in reassuring the Latino community about its plans to not bring immigration status into the town’s daily public safety enforcement. Some suggested community outreach efforts to assuage the fears within the Latino community—including instances of children sobbing when dropped off at school because they feared their parents could be detained while they were in classes, and some families asking friends to care for their children should they be whisked away suddenly.

“I’m here tonight to speak for the children, American citizens, who come to school each day with increasing sadness—they are not confident their family will be intact when they return,” said Dan Hartnett, a teacher and social worker at East Hampton High School. “Communities that work best are built on trust. Let’s build our protocols, especially with the police, on trust.”

“You cannot be passive about this,” said another speaker on Thursday, Bill Chaleff. “History is stained by passivity.”

Just hours earlier, federal ICE investigators had been in East Hampton in search of an unidentified individual with multiple felony charges against him or her. Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo confirmed that the federal agents had been in the town but could offer few details about their mission’s movements or success.

“There were ICE agents in town today to conduct an investigation into a repeat felony offender with a last known address in East Hampton,” Chief Sarlo said in an email on Thursday afternoon. “We ask all law enforcement agencies who come into our jurisdiction to contact our desk in the interest of safety. They did advise us they were here but did not ask for any assistance from us.”

The chief said he did not know who the person the federal agents were seeking was, what the crimes he or she was charged with or had been convicted of, or whether the agents located him or her.

Around the country on Thursday, immigrants and advocacy groups staged labor stoppages and protests over Mr. Trump’s immigration policies that organizers dubbed “A Day Without Immigrants.” Hundreds attended a show of support in Hampton Bays.

Mr. Cantwell’s stance on the town’s enforcement policies drew fire from supporters of more stringent immigration enforcement on Facebook and in online forums. Mr. Cantwell countered that the town’s stance was steered by fairness and prudence.

“We care about this issue,” he said. “We live in a multicultural community. We need to be fair to our immigrant community and respect them, and we intend to do that. We understand the fear.”

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