By Emily Weitz
A near capacity crowd flooded the Bridgehampton Community House Friday night to stand with the immigrant community of the East End.
Minerva Perez of the Organizacion de Latino Americanos of the East End (OLA) brought officials from Long Island Jobs With Justice to the forum to help concerned members of the East End collaborate on forming a rapid response network, which is designed to help people who find themselves in a confrontation with immigration authorities.
Jobs With Justice began helping Long Islanders organize response teams before Donald J. Trump was elected president. In 2015, President Barack Obama authorized the Department of Homeland Security to ramp up immigration raids on recently arrived immigrants, and according to members of Long Island Jobs With Justice, they often found the targets of these raids were women and children, resulting in families being torn apart.
“To come to the United States to create a better life for their children is not an uncommon experience,” said Anita Halasz, executive director of Long Island Jobs for Justice. Ms. Halasz experienced this herself, when she emigrated from Romania at the age of 4 with parents escaping the oppressive regime there.
“I do this for the parents who are trying to do the same thing for their children that my parents did for me and my sister,” she said.
When President Trump was elected, Ms. Halasz said there was a spike in those requesting services, and the organization has been busy helping communities across Long Island organize so they can respond if their neighbors are in trouble. Individuals can call a legal aid hotline at (844) 955-3425 and will then be connected to a local network of people.
“Fifty percent of deportations in New York State happen on Long Island,” said Ms. Halasz. “The community is taking it within their hands to protect the people that live in their communities.”
According to Ms. Perez, the workshops are not about harboring violent criminals, but are about making sure individual know their rights. Walking people through what Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can and can’t legally do is critical in making sure everyone is safe, she said.
“Knowing your rights is something OLA does a lot of,” said Ms. Perez. “We work with many partners in setting up a network of response.”
OLA just wrapped up a legal workshop at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton, offering vulnerable people access to free legal services to understand what immigration officers can and can’t do. One of the most basic things to know is that if ICE comes to the house without a judicial warrant, they have no right to enter, said Ms. Perez. A judicial warrant is different than a legislative warrant in that it displays a judicial seal and is a direct court order. If that seal is not present, people have no obligation to open their doors, she said.
Ms. Perez and OLA have also been talking with local police departments about new practices they’re adopting.
“I think there will be a lot of positives there,” said Ms. Perez, “though there also may be more we have to stay on top of.”
OLA is also working at getting into East End schools to help support populations it believes are vulnerable as well. Currently, schools are safe zones, where ICE is not authorized to go. There are other public arenas, as well, that are considered sanctuaries, where community members should not be fearful.
“The law states that ICE cannot enter into schools, hospitals, churches, or demonstrations,” said Ms. Halasz. “If they do, they are doing something that is not legal and it should be documented.”
This was the second major component of Friday’s meeting: documentation. Carlos Sandoval, the award winning documentary filmmaker of “Farmingville” and “The State of Arizona,” recently joined OLA’s efforts.
“From my experience in Arizona,” said Mr. Sandoval, “we saw the most extreme laws we thought possible. Those laws were put forth by a small group, and that small group is now in power. The laws we are seeing now are the extreme.”
As a result, he believes, documentation is crucial. Modeled on the Copwatch movement, Migrawatch is something anyone can participate in. Since nearly everyone carries a computer in their pockets via a Smartphone, everyone has the capability to be filmmakers and photographers at all times.
“We have to work with local officials to keep them accountable,” said Mr. Sandoval. “We have to act as witnesses to maintain this as a healthy community, a safe community, where people aren’t hiding.”
In the first 100 days of the Trump administration, town halls in East Hampton and Southampton have been packed with local residents interested in protecting the rights of immigrants. Reports of widespread fear and anxiety about possible deportation and disruption of families have been presented to town boards and local police departments. As of now, much of the impact of laws like a federal proposal to deputize local law enforcement officials to act on behalf of ICE, remains to be seen. Police officials in both East Hampton and Southampton towns have said they will not act on behalf of ICE.
“This law is a way to try to get local communities to engage with immigration,” explained Mr. Sandoval, “to deputize local law enforcement to be immigration officers… We have every indicator that immigration will be at the forefront of this administration.”
Documenting and witnessing are ways that ordinary citizens can be a silent presence, without agenda or intent to disrupt any legal process, said Mr. Sandoval. Long Island Jobs With Justice also trains people in how to accompany people to court. Just knowing that they’re not alone, and that someone is watching, has a profound impact on both the person in court and officials, organizers say. Those interested in volunteering their time can visit olaofeasternlongisland.org.