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‘The culture that we are in needs to be reversed:’ Immigrant advocates renew calls for Riverhead supervisor to rescind her emergency order

“You don’t want to be associated in the Christmas Story with the innkeeper who boxed out the Holy Family and forced them to have the child in the stable,” Father John Cervini told the Town Board Tuesday night, advocating for the town to show empathy for the asylum seekers. Photo: Alek Lewis

Immigrant advocates Tuesday night renewed calls for Supervisor Yvette Aguiar to rescind her emergency order, originally intended to bar migrants and asylum seekers sent from the border to New York City from being relocated to Riverhead.

Representatives from immigration support groups, including OLA of Eastern Long Island and Long Island Jobs with Justice, sent correspondence and addressed the Town Board during its meeting last night urging board members to have empathy for people arriving from foreign nations and to have a welcoming attitude to potential newcomers to Riverhead.  

Aguiar declared a state of emergency on the night of May 16 due to an “immediate danger of public emergency of hundreds, or potentially, thousands of persons being transported to the Town of Riverhead,” according to her emergency order.

In an interview the night she issued the order, Aguiar said she “heard that there was going to be well over 1,000” people bused into the town imminently. 

“We got word tonight that they were putting certain people on buses, and it made me act,” Aguiar said.

In an interview with Newsday TV the following day, Aguiar said “There was information received from law enforcement that Riverhead was targeted for receiving some buses of these individuals and I immediately issued the order.” Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller told RiverheadLOCAL the town police department did not provide any information to the supervisor about buses of asylum-seekers. He said he had also heard rumors about it in the community, but had “no credible knowledge.”

Council Member Tim Hubbard said in an interview May 17 that Sliwa’s commentary on his WABC radio show/podcast the day before was “the basis” for the May 16 emergency order.

“Now, how he knew that I have no idea, but that’s the information we went off of,” Hubbard said. 

Asylum seekers from New York City were never bused to the town that night, as Aguiar claimed was imminent, and hotels and motels around the town denied being contacted by the city to house migrants the day after the order was issued. 

The legality of the executive order is being challenged in court by New York City officials, who said other municipalities in the state should do “their share” and take in some asylum seekers to lighten the load on the city. The city has received roughly 100,000 migrants from the border during the past year; more than half are in homeless shelters around New York City, Mayor Eric Adams said last week. Last month, after the lawsuit was filed, Aguiar amended her order to remove references to asylum seekers and migrants. The amendment came on the advice of outside counsel hired by the town to defend the city’s lawsuit, Town Attorney Erik Howard said.

John Cervini, a Catholic priest, told the Town Board of his experience of volunteering at St. John the Evangelist Church with Sister Margaret Smyth, longtime leader of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, who died in December. Cervini said the people Smyth helped find housing and employment on the East End would come up to thank her during meals Cervini and Smyth shared together after mass. They became part of the local community, the priest said.

“[T]he reason I’m here is I understand your position is not at all to welcome people from New York, the asylum seekers in the city, out here. And I would just ask you to really realize that if you do welcome them, those are the very people that are gonna keep sustaining all of the businesses and the farms and the people that come up to Margaret and I every night we would go for a supper,” Cervini said.

“The culture that we are in needs to be reversed,” Cervini continued. “And it’s town halls like you that have the power to change the culture and make it a welcoming culture, and not a culture of fear, especially of these people that are coming, with the new immigrants.”

Cervini reminded the board of the biblical Christmas story. “You don’t want to be associated in the Christmas Story with the innkeeper who boxed out the Holy Family and forced them to have the child in the stable,” he said, drawing a parallel between the story of the Holy Family in Bethlehem and the migrants in the U.S.

Cervini said the board has to be compassionate and that they have the power to continue Smyth’s mission of welcoming immigrant populations to Riverhead.

“The culture can be reversed, of being afraid of people,” Cervini said. “I lived on the border of Haiti, with Dominican people who were meeting Haitians every day — and most Americans would be frightened to death. But let me tell you, representing the United States, our Peace Corps kids created such a bond with these beautiful people that you would be able to create here if you are able to realize that, in keeping them away, you’re letting fear over love. And all I’m saying [is], let love be your guide.”

Cervini presented the board with a letter on behalf of 154 clergy and other members a religious orders on Long Island asking the Town Board to have a “change of heart” about the emergency order.

Sandra Dunn, associate director of the Latino advocacy group OLA of Eastern Long Island, renewed her organization’s call for the town to rescind its emergency order and to meet with her organization one on one to discuss the issues. Photo: Alek Lewis

Sandra Dunn, associate director of OLA, echoed Cervini’s comments and concerns about the executive order.

“We believe, and so do members of the coalition, that these kinds of orders serve to divide a community rather than unite a community,” Dunn said. “And they also do great harm, potentially, to community members; not just to the notion of community, but to actual individual community members, who will not feel welcome in their community,” she said.

“So by being what I’m sure you think of as pre-emptive, or proactive, and creating a declaration of a state of emergency and issuing these executive orders, the effects that that has on community members is really detrimental,” she said. “And it can increase instances of violence, of hate crime, when a certain group is categorized as ‘other’ and is not welcome here,” she said.

“And I will also just say that there is no emergency. You issued these orders based on a rumor, it seems, on something that you heard,” Dunn said, referring to the comments made by right-wing radio host Curtis Sliwa that town officials cited as a source of the emergency order. “And busloads of people have not come to Riverhead, or anywhere else on the East End. So we just urge you to stop the renewal of these orders that you’re doing every five days, and ask you to do as the Father has suggested— to have a change of heart.”

OLA has not received a response from the town regarding a legal memo it sent to town officials after Aguiar issued the emergency order, Dunn said. The memo calls the emergency order unlawful and recommends the state attorney general 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.” OLA and other immigrant advocacy groups last month requested a meeting with the town and has also not heard back, Dunn said.

“So I’m here in person to ask you to please agree to meet with at least members of OLA, since we’re the East End-based organization,” Dunn said, “and to sit down and have a dialogue with us about these executive orders, which we find so detrimental; and which will also affect the way and have already affected the way that nonprofits do their work and the way we tried to take care of people, especially nonprofits that are that are focused on homelessness.”

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar listens as opponents of her emergency order speak during the Aug. 15 Town Board meeting. Photo: Alek Lewis

Responding to Cervini and Dunn, Aguiar told them she did not base her decision on rumors and continued to justify the order. 

“There was some accusations made from OLA, unfortunately. The matter now is being dealt legally,” Aguiar said, apparently referring to the NYC lawsuit. “And I do support legal immigration and I do support taking care of our community.” 

“First, nobody’s singling, just in particular, one group of people. It just happens to be that there was an immediate threat…,” Aguiar continued. “And we just want our code to be respected, the town to be aware, and anything that happens, not to just throw people here in our town and not being able to account for them. And I support my stance and I will continue to renew the orders as needed. And fortunately that’s where I stand, but I respect your opinion.”

Michele Lynch of Riverhead, the vice chair of the Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force, said that “words do matter, and policy that’s made does matter” bringing up the 2008 racially motivated murder of Marcelo Lucero and the connection some made between the activities of the perpetrators and the rhetoric of the Suffolk County executive at the time, Steve Levy.

“And even though you’re saying you don’t want to make it to a certain group of people, that’s the reality of it,” Lynch said, “that people take it, and they run with it, and they do harm to other individuals, because they perceive — whether or not they are citizens, they assume they’re not — and therefore, they think they have the right to treat them a certain way.”

Lynch said Smyth, who was a member of the Anti-Bias Task Force, would be “very disappointed” by the emergency order and urged town officials to meet with OLA.

NYC’s lawsuit against Riverhead was severed from other municipalities with similar executive orders and is in the process of being moved to the Suffolk County Supreme Court. 

Aguiar, on WRIV radio’s Dawn Patrol show Tuesday morning, told host Bruce Tria that her emergency order “diverted the buses coming to Riverhead” to the Town of Colonie upstate. But asylum-seekers first arrived at a hotel in Colonie, a town in Albany County, on May 28, according to the Times Union, which covers New York’s capital region. That was nearly two weeks after Aguiar issued the first emergency order on May 16.

“They’re still trying to get people, they’re still calling around,” Aguiar said, claiming New York City continues to solicit hotels and motels for housing. “They’re calling around and they’re saying we have at-risk people and you need to empty out your hotel and you need to take these individuals.”

“We have our at-risk individuals. We have two big hotels here and some smaller ones,” Aguiar said. “And we need to take care of our — you know we have a homeless problem here. We need to take care of — it’s our town — we need to take care of our [veterans] and some of them are elderly. You know that a substantial amount of homeless people are veterans? Are you aware of that? Why don’t we take care of that first in our hometown? Our veterans that served our country?”

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