Updated: May 1, 2022
By Beth Young
If you’ve attended any public meeting on the South Fork in the past couple months, chances are that Minerva Perez, Executive Director of the Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, has been there advocating for a better relationship between the Latino community and local government here.
Ms. Perez took the reins as executive director of OLA in early 2016, after six years working as the domestic violence shelter director of The Retreat, and just before a national election that hinged, to a great degree, on President Donald Trump’s pledge to increase immigration enforcement.
Since early this year, Ms. Perez has been engaging with local community leaders on how to protect the East End’s Latino community members in a national climate that has become increasingly hostile to immigrants.
OLA was originally an offshoot of the East Hampton Town Hispanic Advisory Committee organized by founder Isabel Sepulveda de Scanlon and incorporated in 2002.
“We have an amazing executive director, and she can run with the bulls,” said Ms. Sepulveda at a Pachanga for Peace & Unity held by OLA at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor March 11.
We caught up with Ms. Perez in late March to talk about her vision for the future of OLA.
Q: Did you anticipate you’d be this busy when you became executive director last year?
I’m trying to not be spun out in a million different directions just because of this election. It certainly has directed efforts in a stronger way, but toward some of the same things we’ve already been doing — looking at the relationship between the Latino community and the police. The trust has to be there.
What’s happening with exploitation, like wage theft, worker safety, access to education in the schools, there are things we were talking about six or eight months ago. Now, we’re on another planet, with all these other levels on top, but some of the same things remain important.
Q: You’re dealing with more fear?
At CMEE on April 13, we’re having a law clinic for parents in Spanish on emergency planning for temporary custody of your children. These are already horrible things to have to bring out. As of a couple days ago, the New York Bar Association had not decided on the best template for power of attorney forms. People getting so nervous. They want to do everything as quick as they can. Some of that stuff is fine, but you might be in a situation where you’ve just signed over your children to someone and it could be the wrong thing.
We want to be able to put out as much explicit information as we can. It makes their household healthier to take the fear down a notch. Those levels of fear are so unhealthy, and are immediately transferred to children. We’re working on two other law clinics in Hampton Bays and East Hampton.
Q: Are you holding any other public forums?
On April 14, we’re holding a Rapid Responder and Accompaniment volunteer training in partnership with Long Island Jobs with Justice at the Bridgehampton Community House from 6 to 8 p.m. I would like to pack that place. There are so many people out there that want to help and they really want to be put into action. I want to get everyone together and feel the positive power of pending action and not just “we’re gonna talk about this.” Rapid Responders can be as involved as civil disobedience, stopping something from happening, or an active protest. It could be a hotline or a phone chain that lets people know about certain actions that are happening and gives them quick access to volunteers. Rapid Responders can also be documenting, and we’ll be discussing the legal implications of when you can video and record peoples’ voices.
Q: You spend a lot of time working with East End law enforcement. How is that relationship?
I believe in law enforcement. We are never going to get things we need from law enforcement if we put them in a corner. That’s what happened with Suffolk County. I don’t want to be in a situation, on a local level, where all we’re doing is fighting with law enforcement.
When it comes to reporting crimes, reporting domestic violence, sexual assault, in general, as a victim or a witness, the perception of how local law enforcement works with immigration is important.
I acknowledge that law enforcement has to work with other law enforcement. They need to have alliances. No one’s saying that they created this problem. They didn’t create this fear, but it’s here and it’s something that we’re trying to work on together. Knowing that you do your job as law enforcement to protect and serve the community, you need to think about the ways that a vulnerable person might perceive you as being connected to immigration.
All of this is not a Latino issue. It’s a public safety issue. People can’t be afraid to report crimes.
The bad people are still going to be the bad people and they’re going to use all these things as a way to exploit people further. Then victims look to other people for protection. That’s not good. We need the police to be the only source of protection that we can all go to.
Q: How does the interaction between local law enforcement and immigration work?
In the past, it was more targeted. They’d hold people for immigration for 48 hours, and sometimes they’ll say “we held and held and they didn’t come so we let him go.” We’re not living in that world anymore. They’ll have someone there in 15 minutes. In past, if they were holding someone, it would have been a guy with a really bad rap sheet. Now immigration targets range from overstaying your visa to being a threat to public safety at the terrorist level and everything in between.
If local law enforcement is being asked to hold, they might not get all the information. The only thing they should be asking for is a judicial warrant. Let a judge decide if it’s reasonable search and seizure. Local law enforcement is still hashing that out. I had a meeting the other day with East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell and the East Hampton Chief of Police and town attorney. All the East End chiefs are considering a policy on this topic, on where they want to stand and make that decision together.
Q: What is the difference between an administrative warrant and a judicial warrant?
An administrative warrant can be for anything from overstaying a visa to a nonviolent misdemeanor years ago. The police are waking up to the fact that the focus is not just on super-violent convicted criminals. There is interest from immigration on many kinds of people, who the only thing they have done is a violation of immigration law. That kind of request does not come with a judicial warrant. It’s a semantics game. It’s a violation of the fourth amendment against unlawful search and seizures to hold someone without a judicial warrant. Are you going to put your town in a liable situation if you hold someone, even for an hour?
We’re in this crazy rocky terrain where up is down and down is up, and in middle of all that, what do we have to hold on to other than our Constitution? If we lived in a community that was rife with violent crime and drug lords on every corner and this is what you need to do to shake this up and make this safe, a part of me would say, yeah, maybe that’s ok, but we don’t live in that town. We live in a great town that’s got great stuff going for it, great community. So what are we gaining? If it’s that important, just let the federal side get a judicial warrant. Let those folks figure out how they need to put their ducks in a row.
Q: Do you find that a lot of U.S. citizens don’t realize that many constitutional rights apply to all people?
Yes. you don’t even have to be documented to fight and die for this country. We’ve got veterans of wars that are being deported right now.
The fact is that now any kind of interaction with law enforcement is scaring the heck out of people. For example, having a fake ID is a felony. But the parallel I like to draw is that everyone that lives out here that has a teenager, they probably had a fake ID at one point. In terms of what the consequences are, a teen getting into a club is one thing, but the consequence of a guy trying to drive to work not being able to ever see his family again? It’s crazy.
I try to keep these conversations on a local level, because in the federal level, it doesn’t go anywhere. There are some things going on with CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, where American money goes to arm governments that use it against their own people, and then they flee and come here. I can’t even get into that. Everyone just starts to feel guilty.
Q: Do you have resources to help on the North Fork?
Im doing a Latino diversity training for the police here in Southampton. I want to be able to do that in East Hampton, Southold, Riverhead and Shelter Island. It would be great to have volunteers to deputize people to search out information in school districts, to see if they have written policies and procedures, and how they’re accepting emergency plans that parents are submitting to them.
Q: How did you end up at OLA?
I moved out here in 2002 to 2003, and I started hearing about a lot of negative stuff going on with Steve Levy as Suffolk County Executive. I grew up in Miami, which is very integrated, then I lived in New York City and then I came out here and started hearing about all this madness and I said who the heck is working with the Latino community? Everyone said Isabel, Isabel, Isabel. In 2005-6 I signed on as volunteer executive director, but then I had a full time job. I curated and doubled the OLA film festival, did a lot of talk at the county legislative body, and then I had to step back.
I joined The Retreat and was there for six years as the shelter director, but there was more I needed to do. I just have a lot of energy right now, and there was only so much I could really do within that context. I wasn’t really fitting into that model.
In talking with Isabel, I thought ‘its kind of like a startup, even though it’s existing.’ I could help build it up, help the board get healthier. This was in February of 2016, before the election. I joined knowing it was a huge risk, that maybe I couldn’t even sustain being here. I just wanted to really believe in the mission.
But OLA cannot be formed on crisis alone. We’re still maintaining all of our missions of arts, education and advocacy. I’m planning our 14th annual film festival and adding another venue, hopefully the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall in Riverhead.
I have a part-time development and outreach associate, Itzel Nava. She’s amazing. She’s a recent college grad coming back home, a reverse brain drain. I don’t want to be the only face to OLA. It’s a detriment.
I just got funding for a position I created after seeing how unexciting and terribly unsexy it is to vote locally, and doing some work with the Latino community on voting in last year’s election.
We want to hire a civic engagement coordinator, who will be energizing and activating a Latino voter base at the most hyperlocal level possible — school board elections, village elections, town elections, and picking the most important school board elections, based possibly on the number of Latinos in the district.
We’ll gather information on three hot topics in the school district, from bilingual programing to fake turf on the fields, and build and engage the Latino voter base, creating walk lists and phone banking systems, and mobilizing a small group of volunteers to go out and knock on the doors of every single Latino voter in the district.
People want to jump to more Latinos on the school board, but you don’t just jump to that. Why the hell would anybody want to put themselves in the position where ‘I’m the token person, and I’m going to have to explain to you over and over again that I don’t just eat rice and beans and salsa dance.’ Why would I put myself through that? I’m an intelligent person with a good education and not much free time. I can offer it, but I’m not going to be insulted while I offer it. How much can you put on someone?
We need to shift the dialogue enough so that we can bring these very smart, capable people out of the woodwork and say all right, now is the time. There are people around you that get it. There’s a reason to do this.
Q: Do you think you’ll ever run out of energy?
Not yet. I would really like to bring OLA up to a certain level that it is sustainable, because it wasn’t sustainable a year ago. We were able to double our board, and these board members are engaged.
It is this moment that the Latino community, if OLA can stick with it, can be brought out into the light and people will be able to share their expertise in a way that’s healthy. What could happen is the opposite of that. We could have something that ends up being confrontational, and that’s not good.
We’ve got kids right now hiding in basements because their mom is freaking out. You think that kid is going to feel all so American? All they are now is angry or embarrassed or ashamed. We can’t have a huge Latino community right now that all they want to do is fight with a Bonacker or tell a cop ‘those aren’t my rights and I’m gonna videotape you,’ even if the cop’s being a nice guy.
What are we going to do to develop a healthy community where the whole aim is that we are working together, we see common interests? This is our future. I see 55 percent Latino in this school, 45 percent here. We’re not going anywhere. These are our future doctors and lawyers. What are we going to do to ensure that this is an integrated, healthy, loving community where we can all exist and we can still have a thriving economy?