By Stephen J. Kotz
A large crowd was beyond standing-room-only during a Immigration and Civil Rights Free Community Forum that was hosted by the Organizacion Latino-Americana (OLA) of Eastern Long Island at the Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Church in Bridgehampton on Tuesday night. Michael Heller photo.
With the Trump administration announcing this week new, tougher standards that will make it easier to deport those who are in the country illegally, and rumors flying about the presence of federal immigration agents in the community, Latinos and their supporters have begun to organize themselves for what they expect to be a more hostile environment.
Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Catholic Church was bursting at the seams Tuesday evening when the when the Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island (OLA) brought in representatives from a number of advocacy groups for a bilingual forum on immigration and civil rights.
Last Thursday, a full house squeezed into East Hampton Town Hall to lobby officials to not cooperate with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, and cheered when East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said the town had no intentions of deputizing its police to act as ICE agents.
OLA also called on people to express the same sentiment to the Southampton Board when it meets Tuesday, February 28, at 6 p.m. On Tuesday, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman largely echoed Mr. Cantwell when he said town police would continue to work with ICE to apprehend felons and dangerous criminals but would not take on day-to-day immigration enforcement duties.
At Tuesday’s forum in Bridgehampton, a crowd of about 400 people filled every pew, sat on the floor in the church’s wide center aisle, stood along the walls, and even spilled into the sanctuary to hear messages that were practical, inspiring and chilling.
“People are here to help themselves, help others, and help their communities,” said Minerva Perez, OLA’s executive director. Panelists fielded questions from the audience, and when the forum ended, they were quickly surrounded by a thick knot of people asking questions.
“There’s a lot of fear in the community and there is good reason for that,” said Christopher Worth, an East Quogue immigration attorney, noting that in the past immigration officials targeted those with serious criminal records or those who had been deported before. Under the new guidelines, “anyone with any kind of criminal record might be a priority for removal,” he said.
Mr. Worth said it would take weeks or months before the new federal guidelines to be fully put in place. “Now is a good time to take all that emotion and channel it toward preservation,” he said, urging people to get their paperwork in order and draw up plans to take care of their loved ones in case they are detained.
He also urged undocumented Latinos to keep a low profile. “Now is not the time to get into trouble. Now is not the time to have tinted windows or hang your flag in the rearview window,” he said. “Don’t do anything that gives you any excuse to interact with the police.”
Jose Perez of Latino Justice told the audience, “our Constitution applies equally to everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are a citizen. It gives rights to all, regardless of who lives in the White House.” He said that immigrants do not have to let police in to their homes if they do not have a warrant and have the right to request attorneys and not answer questions.
Cheryl Keshner of the Empire Justice Center said a grassroots effort would help beat back the challenges posed by the new climate in Washington D.C. and urged those in attendance to lobby their local governments to not allow police to become immigration agents.
“It’s not a crime to be an immigrant,” she said to swelling applause. “We are united and we are here together to say we will protect immigrant communities.”
Ms. Keshner urged immigrants to prepare a plan in case they face detention or deportation proceedings. “Keep an emergency list, who to call in case there’s a problem,” she said. “You should make an emergency plan for your children — I know it’s difficult. You need to identify who is going to be responsible for your children in case you are detained.”
Asked how to talk to children about the threat of deportation, Ms. Keshner suggested that people “tell your children you are not a bad person. You came here because you wanted a wanted a better life for yourself; you wanted a better life for your children.”
In East Hampton last Thursday, Mr. Cantwell said although the president had signed an executive order allowing towns to work hand-in-hand with ICE, “the town of East Hampton will not enter into such an agreement.” Mr. Cantwell said while the town would continue to work with federal agencies, when appropriate, “the policy of the town and the police has not changed today from what it was six months ago or a year ago.”
“I understand people are afraid and I can’t blame them,” said Mr. Schneiderman, who added the only thing that has changed in his eyes was “the rhetoric and the fear.” He said town police would continue cooperate with federal law enforcement agencies, where appropriate. “I haven’t seen any directive that the town has to do anything differently,” he said.
At Thursday’s East Hampton Town Board meeting, Daniel Hartnett, a social worker with the East Hampton School District, said fear is growing in the Latino community.
“I’m here to speak for children, American citizens, who come with increasing anxiety and sadness to school because they are afraid they are going to be separated from their parents, and are afraid to leave their homes in the morning because they are not confident their families will be intact when they return,” he said.
Christine Sciulli said she had been asked to step in as guardian for a family of immigrants, whose daughter is a good friend of her daughter.
“They pulled me aside and asked me if I would take care of their kids if they were detained,” she said. “They don’t want their kids to be upset if they come home and I was there, if I came to school to pick them up, or if I was called in the middle of the night to come over.”
“Now this girl is afraid to go to school,” she continued. “It’s a nightmare for these kids and it affects other kids in the classroom.”