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Riverhead supervisor extends and expands emergency order, drawing fire from Latino advocacy group and NYCLU

Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar. File photo: Alek Lewis

Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar extended and expanded the town’s state of emergency barring hotel and motels in the Town of Riverhead from housing asylum-seekers this week, continuing a controversial measure immigration advocates say is an abuse of power.

The order extending the state of emergency, filed Monday, prohibits facilities housing homeless persons from displacing them to provide shelter for other individuals. It also renews the requirements of the order issued May 16. 

“Essentially, what we’re looking to do is basically make sure that they’re not going to displace people that don’t have permanent housing arranged and just sort of create an issue where we have people who had shelter within the town and now displaced and looking for shelter, or not having shelter, or maybe going to one of the other outdoor encampments that we have around town,” Town Attorney Erik Howard said in an interview Tuesday.

“We didn’t want people who are already here, who don’t have permanent housing solutions set up, to be displaced because one of the facilities wants to get in on a good contract offer from the city,” Howard said.

Howard said the emergency order must be renewed every five days, pursuant New York State Executive Law Section 24 governing local emergency orders.

The order was extended because the migrant crisis in New York City is still ongoing and town officials believe there is still an intent for the city to send asylum seekers to surrounding municipalities without consulting their leaders, Howard said. He pointed to incidents in Rockland and Orange counties, where states of emergency were declared after officials caught wind New York City planned to bus migrants to hotels in both counties. Lawsuits against the city by both counties resulted in temporary restraining orders barring the city from sending any more migrants.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement Tuesday that 70,000 migrants have arrived in the city over the past year from other states. He urged other governments to do “their share” and take in asylum seekers.

“Given that we’re unable to provide care for an unlimited number of people and are already overextended, it is in the best interest of everyone, including those seeking to come to the United States, to be upfront that New York City cannot single-handedly provide care to everyone crossing our border,” he said.

In addition to the migrants who were allowed to stay in Rockland and Orange counties, hotels in other municipalities across the state, including Yonkers, have taken in migrants from the city. 

Aguiar issued the state of emergency due to the “immediate danger of public emergency of hundreds, or potentially, thousands of persons being transported to the Town of Riverhead.” She said during an interview immediately after issuing the executive order she heard there were three locations in Riverhead that agreed to house the migrants and they would be bused to Riverhead immediately. 

The supervisor said that night she did not know where the locations were and did not identify the source of her information. She acknowledged speaking with talk-radio host Curtis Sliwa, who said earlier in the day during his radio show that migrants were being bused into Riverhead. Aguiar said Sliwa’s claims were verified. Council Member Tim Hubbard said in a separate interview that the order was based on Sliwa’s comments.

Migrants never came. Hotels and motel operators in Riverhead denied contact with New York City to house migrants. Aguiar and Town Board members said after Tuesday that the order was a “proactive” move.

“We wanted to be proactive, rather than reactive in the event that it got to that point,” Howard said. “By making that declaration, issuing that order, you eventually put the world on notice that we’re aware of this problem, we’re aware of what New York City’s trying to do to resolve it. And we’re saying we cannot sustain that type of importation of people in those types of numbers on an immediate basis like that.”

The mayor’s press secretary, Fabien Levy, said in a statement to RiverheadLOCAL today that “New York City has done and will continue to do its part, but we need counties, cities, and towns across the state to do their part as well, especially when New York City is willing to pay for shelter, food, and more.”

Levy would not directly say whether or not any location in Riverhead was being considered by the city to house migrants, or whether locations in the town are being considered now. “As we always say, we don’t discuss private conversations,” he said.

Questions remain about the legality of the Riverhead’s executive order and whether it could survive a challenge in court.

The New York Civil Liberties Union, which last week sued Rockland and Orange counties over their emergency declarations, is taking a “hard look” at Riverhead’s emergency order, according to Amy Belsher, the group’s director of immigrants’ rights litigation.

The NYCLU filed a class action lawsuit in federal district court, alleging violations of the U.S. Constitution’s due process and equal protection guarantees, as well as several federal and state laws. The lawsuit seeks an injunction to prevent the Rockland and Orange county governments from interfering with housing for migrants and asylum-seekers within the counties.

Orange and Rockland counties deny violating the plaintiffs’ constitutional and statutory rights, arguing in court documents that the emergency orders prevent hotels from accepting new people from the city’s relocation program, not migrants and/or asylum seekers in general.

Orange and Rockland counties’ emergency orders differ slightly from Riverhead’s order, which simply orders hotels, motels and other facilities to “not accept said migrants and/or asylum seekers for housing within the Town of Riverhead.” 

“Immigrants have a constitutionally protected right to travel and reside anywhere in New York, free from harassment and discrimination,” Belsher said. “We are taking a hard look at executive orders arising across the state — including in Riverhead — but any order following in Rockland and Orange County’s footsteps risks being similarly unlawful.”

Howard said the town is comfortable with defending the legality of its emergency order in court, should it come to that.

The town’s order has a “limited, narrowly tailored scope” Howard said he believes will withstand judicial scrutiny. “Because, I mean, at the end of the day, we are just enforcing our building codes, we’re enforcing our town code,” Howard said.

Any person who knowingly violates a local emergency order can be charged with a class B misdemeanor, which is punishable by 90 days in jail, according to state law.

Howard said the rumors of migrants being bused to Riverhead, coupled with what happened with Rockland and Orange counties, satisfied the “reasonable apprehension of immediate danger” standard set by the law governing emergency orders.

“Whether or not it is a rumor or not, that is, to me, that’s only part of it,” Howard said, referring to Sliwa’s report. “The rumor by itself, I think, is not necessarily persuasive enough. But when you have the demonstrated intent to send [homeless migrants] to other counties, without these counties being aware of it,” forcing the counties to go to court to stop it, “I think that, for us to be in a position where we have to react to it… puts us in a bad position,” Howard said.

“And when you’re talking about hotels and motels, you know, we have a lot of — [the] hospitality industry is important to our summer economy here,” Howard added. “So, you know, that’s just another thing that goes into the consideration.”

OLA of Eastern Long Island, the Latino advocacy group, has urged Riverhead Town to rescind its emergency order. In a document drafted by senior policy counsel Wanda Sanchez Day, the group argues the order will cause “an increase in hate crimes and violence against the Latino community and communities of color in Riverhead and even throughout the East End.”

“It misuses the law and discriminates against people, many lawfully in the country, on the basis of national origin and or race,” Sanchez Day’s memorandum reads.

The organization recommends that “Federal, State and local governments act to diminish the effects of the unlawful use of power by the Town of Riverhead.”

The state attorney general should bring criminal and civil actions against the town for “misconduct against Riverhead officials’ abuse of powers that intentionally deny or impede another in the exercise or enjoyment of any right, privilege, power, or immunity, knowing his/her conduct is unlawful.”

Businesses in Riverhead should bring a federal lawsuit against the town for its unlawful action, the group says.

The state legislature should legislate “against immunity for officials who engage in conduct that is clearly wrong, in bad faith or an abuse of power for pecuniary or political gain, for themselves or third parties, or that deprive persons of constitutionally protected rights.” 

OLA representatives, along with those from progressive organizations and immigration advocates, spoke at the Suffolk County Legislature’s meeting Tuesday. They made the case to legislators that seeking asylum in the United States is a legal process and should not be obstructed by county action.

Many other speakers at Tuesday’s meeting voiced support of preventing asylum seekers from coming to Suffolk County, citing a host of reasons from overcrowded schools to lack of affordable housing, as well as giving voice to fears about crime, gangs and communicable diseases.

The legislative meeting came after Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey announced at a press conference Sunday that the legislature would pursue hiring a special counsel to look into how the county government could legally block New York City from housing asylum seekers in Suffolk. U.S. Rep. Nick LaLota, Riverhead Council Member Tim Hubbard, Council Member Bob Kern and Deputy Supervisor Devon Higgins attended McCaffrey’s press conference, along with various members of the legislature. The press conference also drew protestors, who interrupted the speakers with shouted questions and comments.

A resolution to hire a special counsel was not on the legislature’s general meeting agenda Tuesday.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has also announced that the state is exploring housing migrants at SUNY campuses across the state. Spectrum News 1 reported Tuesday that Stony Brook University is one of three SUNY campuses designated to house migrants presently being sheltered in New York City. The Stony Brook, Buffalo and Albany campuses would house a total of 1,500 migrants among them, the news organization reported.

Hochul and Adams also held a press conference Tuesday urging federal officials to expedite legal work authorization for asylum seekers. Hochul said migrants who work can be part of the state’s economy, ease labor shortages and take pressure off city and state social services. She said that under the current system, migrants must wait 180 days after filing for legal asylum status to obtain papers to legally work.

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