Sister Margaret Smyth, Angela DeVito
Sister Margaret Smyth and Angela DeVito discuss issues immigrants face in Riverhead.

Riverhead has recently appeared on a nationwide list of “sanctuary cities,” cities decried by anti-immigration groups for purportedly providing safe harbor for illegal immigrants, and members of immigrant rights groups are trying to educate both town board members and the public on the truth about immigrant rights.

Three of the town’s board members — John Dunleavy, Jodi Giglio and George Gabrielsen — have come under fire from civil liberties groups after stating in July that they believe the town police should play a role in immigration enforcement.

Long Island Wins Executive Director Maryann Sinclair Slutsky; Suffolk County Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union Director Amol Sinha; Bishop Emil Wcela of St. John the Evangalist R.C. Church and Danielle Gillen, a DREAMer from Honduras who works with the non-profit farm workers advocacy group PathStone in Riverhead, along with Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller, held a panel discussion with the Riverhead Town Board Thursday morning to explain immigrant rights issues.

“It’s a shame some organizations and individuals are using the term ‘sanctuary cities’ for any city that has a friendly policy toward immigrants,” said Mr. Sinha, who added that every major city in the United States could be considered a sanctuary city.

Mr. Sinha pointed out that a lack of lawful immigration status is a federal civil matter, not a criminal violation, and that local law enforcement officers are prohibited by New York State law from questions suspects about their immigration status unless the question is relevant to the crime at hand.

He added that any policy that violates that state law “would lead to instances of racial profiling and be ineffective, illegal and detrimental to public safety.”

He added that Suffolk County law prohibits police from providing information to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) without a judicial warrant articulating probable cause.

“Immigration violations are not crimes. There’s case law to back this up,” he said. “Holding somebody without probable cause is unconstitutional.”

He added that ICE requests are requests, not mandates.

Chief Hegermiller said Riverhead Police follow the rules, holding suspects for ICE only if there is a warrant for their arrest.

Town Supervisor Sean Walter said, however, that Riverhead had received a policy letter from ICE that was in conflict with Mr. Sinha’s statements.

Mr. Sinha said the letter was likely in reference to a brief 2011 ICE effort called “Secure Communities” that is no longer in place.

Riverhead Councilman John Dunleavy has come under fire in recent weeks for saying he wants Riverhead’s name to be removed from the sanctuary cities list.

Mr. Dunleavy, who serves as the town board liaison to Riverhead’s recently re-formed Anti-Bias Task Force, said he believes in the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, but he doesn’t believe Riverhead should be on the sanctuary city list.

The Anti-Bias Task Force was reconvened last year after numerous Hispanic immigrants were beaten and robbed in Riverhead.

“I want our name taken off the internet as a sanctuary city,” said Mr. Dunleavy at this Thursday’s work session. “Why are we and only 70 other cities in United States considered a sanctuary city?”

Denise Civiletti, who publishes the online news website RiverheadLocal, told the board that RiverheadLocal contacted the man behind the sanctuary cities website, and found that Riverhead had been added to the list because the dateline from many news articles about crimes committed by immigrants had been in Riverhead, not because the crimes occurred in Riverhead but because Riverhead is the location of Suffolk County’s criminal court.

Bishop Wcela pointed out that many immigrants come to the United States to escape violence and oppression in their own countries.

“You are not to wrong or oppress an alien, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt,” he reminded the board of the words from the book of Exodus.

Ms. Gillen said her family left behind poverty and gang violence in Honduras to come to the United States when she was 12 years old. After she received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, she was able to find a job, enroll at Suffolk County Community College and receive a driver’s license.

“These are simple things for people my age but for me was a big deal,” she said. “We had to leave everything behind. It’s not easy.”

Ms. Giglio, who is running for town supervisor this year, said she believes 40 percent of the students in Riverhead schools “don’t speak the English language,” and are “put toward back of the classroom because they don’t know what the teacher is talking about. It’s a burden on the school district.”

Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Form Spanish Apostolate said many children who speak Spanish in Riverhead schools were born in the United States, and most learn English very quickly. She pointed out that the school district has had valedictorians and salutatorians who didn’t speak English when they first started school.

“What’s the percentage of that?” asked Ms. Giglio.

“Well, you only have one valedictorian and salutatorian each year,” said Sister Margaret.

Angela DeVito, who ran for Riverhead Town Supervisor as a Democrat two years ago, asked if the new information the board received Thursday would help reshape Riverhead’s policies toward immigrants.

“How are we going to be addressing taking advantage of individuals who don’t believe they have any rights?” she asked.

Mr. Walter said he’s been asking leaders of the immigrant community to come forward and help the town craft policy for two years, but no one’s volunteered.

“They have not come forward, for reasons that are not obvious to us,” he said.

Sister Margaret said town representatives need to seek out the immigrant community. She also said she’s not surprised, given board members’ well-publicized recent comments about immigration, that no one is coming forward to work with them.

“Why would they approach the town board when they’re very aware of what the town board has said?” she asked. “The lives of immigrants, they’re working all the time. They’re looking to you to set the tone so they would be able to participate. They’re working 8 to 12 hours a day. The climate created by the board — that has a reverberation back into the community. I always look for the day that this board is going to reflect the community.”

Sister Margaret also dispelled a few other ideas floating around the room: she believes immigrants in Riverhead are not afraid of the town police, and have become comfortable asking for their help.

She also said most immigrants she works with want to be paid on the books, but their employers want to pay them in cash, or not at all. She said they also want to be able to own their own businesses, buy houses for their families and pay taxes.

Mr. Walter said he believes it will be hard for immigrants to buy houses when they have to provide tax return information to mortgage brokers.

“Bad information, Sean, bad information,” said Sister Margaret. “Immigrants are as intelligent as any person on the face of earth…. It’s a myth that people don’t pay taxes.”

She said her office helps 15 to 20 immigrants per day do their taxes.

She added that she is assisting some immigrants whose bosses haven’t paid them in filing grievances in small claims court.

“You’d be so surprised to see your neighbor doesn’t want to pay his employees,” she said, adding that she’d like to make their names public when the small claims process is complete.

“Many people I know want to buy homes. Part of the immigrant dream is to own a business and own a home. Therefore you fit more perfectly into the fabric of a community,” she said. “Sanctuary means we welcome all. If that means I can buy a home in this town, I’ll buy a home in this town.”

“The term sanctuary city is a political football,” agreed Mr. Walter. “It came here for political means, so it blew up into this…. the definition of a sanctuary city is a welcoming city. We’re going to raise up everything we do in this city. We want this to be a sanctuary city.”

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at

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