Members of a large crowd of Greenport residents asked Southold Town Police to look into making the town a sanctuary city at a forum with the police Monday night, at which many people shared concerns based on past immigration raids in the village and the current national uncertainty over immigrant rights under the Trump administration.
The forum, titled “Synergy Greenport: an Open and Respectful Conversation Between the Police and the Community,” was held at St. Agnes School in Greenport and was organized by the Southold Anti-Bias Task Force, Southold Town and Greenport Village.
It was moderated by Southampton Town Anti-Bias Task Force Chariman James Banks.
“Nationally, there’s a lot of anticipatory anxiety because we’re unaware of the direction things are going to go,” he said. “We’re going to need to keep talking about this until we find some answers and we need to keep standing up. Acknowledging our fears and concerns is very important. That’s how we find our answers.”
Greenport resident Poppy Johnson broached the sanctuary city subject with the panel, asking the government officials present to make an “official stand.”
“San Francisco and Boston declared themselves as sanctuary places,” she said. “Six or seven years ago, there was a terrible situation where ICE agents came to Greenport and took people out of houses in the middle of the night. We all felt very helpless and hopeless about the situation. We can declare ourselves a sanctuary but we have to figure out how to be one.”
Greenport Mayor George Hubbard said that because the village does not have its own police force, it would not be able to grant sanctuary. The Southold Town Police Department handles policing for Greenport Village.
“Suffolk County is designated a sanctuary county, but we don’t have county police out here,” he said.
In fact, Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco announced in late December of 2016 that the county is ending the practice of asking for a judge’s order before turning over detained immigrants wanted by federal immigration officials, distancing itself from the “sanctuary county” designation.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order last week cutting off federal funding to sanctuary cities.
“I don’t think my office would be the proper office to designate any area of town a sanctuary,” said Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley.
But two of his bosses, Town Councilmen Bill Ruland and Jim Dinizio, were also in attendance.
Mr. Ruland praised the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force and said he’d seek their guidance on the issue.
“The town board rarely works unilaterally without working with the task force,” he said. “I’m sure that as time goes forward…I think that it’s quite certain that the task force will make recommendations to the town board, and at that point the town board is in a position to consider it. I think that their counsel would be invaluable. I know that it would be to me.”
Mr. Dinizio, who said that he voted for President Trump, said that “enforcing a federal law is something I couldn’t ask a police officer or chief to do.”
He added that he voted for Mr. Trump “because our country is in such disrepair.”
“We have Republicans. We have Democrats. The people we have elected have done nothing whatsoever. They have allowed people to come across the border and allowed them to live in the state that they’re living in, which is what I’m hearing here,” he said. “I hear ‘I don’t know if someone is going to knock on my door tonight and take my family away.’ Well, that’s the problem of our government of allowing them to come in here. I’m not saying I don’t want them here. I’m saying we need to do something at that level to settle whatever this dispute is… It’s not for a town to consider, in my opinion.”
“Yes, I’m going to listen to the Anti-Bias Task Force,” he added. “Most of my business with the town is dealing with ‘are we going to pave this road or that road.’ It’s not that. We don’t deal in that. At this point in time, we haven’t ever addressed that, and I don’t know, at this point in time, how we could, because I’m not educated in this at all.”
Chief Flatley explained the town police department’s interaction with federal authorities, which in the case of arrests for crimes at the misdemeanor and felony level, involved the electronic disbursal of fingerprints to federal, state and county databases.
He said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement “sets up priorities for sending people back to their country of origin” after they are convicted.
“Their first priority level is a threat to national security, a very heinous felony or gang crime,” he said.
Chief Flatley said the fingerprint system is the “only procedure we have on the books as far as immigration.”
“Our department is here to protect and secure the community,” he said. “We have no plans on dedicating any officers to do any immigration work.”
He added that his department does not plan to deputize local police officers, as has been suggested by the Trump administration.
Chief Flatley added that since the ICE raids in Greenport several years back, the agency has not been engaging in raids on the East End.
“They don’t do those types of operations any more. They don’t have manpower for it,” he said.
“But none of us are really sure of where he is going with immigration,” he said of the president. “It starts at the federal level and it gets passed down to a lot of different levels of government before it reaches local departments.”
Oscar Cruz of Greenport said that immigration agents had, in the past, come to Greenport “at 4 or 5 in the morning.”
“They separate families. I know they go and look for people involved with crime, but at the same time they took innocent people. The idea and my question is, people live in houses and they move. Do the police know this? They’re still taking innocent people and separating them from their kids. It hurts our children,” he said. “I understand, in the Latino community, some people commit crimes but there are good people… We love America. We love this culture.”
Chief Flatley said that, about 10 years ago, immigration agents had approached town police with a list of suspects that they’d asked the town to check against its police database, and had then conducted raids based, in part, on the town’s last known address for the people on the list.
Southold Town had posted marked police cars on the street during the raids so that neighbors would understand that the federal plainclothes agents were part of a law enforcement operation.
“That was our involvement in the process. Would we do it again if we were asked to?” he said. “I’d have to research whether we’d be mandated to do it… If somebody were to call me tonight and say we have 10 ICE agents coming out, no I wouldn’t do it.”
One member of the audience asked Greenport School Superintendent David Gamberg, who was on the panel, how the kids in school are handling the current anxiety.
“It’s very much like family. The current situation has certainly enflamed anxiety, broadly speaking. Our support staff and classroom teachers are very much aware of that,” he said.
Mr. Gamberg said that he and Greenport Village Trustee Doug Roberts are working on a celebration of Greenport’s cultural diversity to be held June 4, as part of the “One Greenport” campaign.
“The concept behind that really reflects the idea that we are one people,” he said. “We come from different backgrounds. We’re very fortunate that the Village of Greenport and the school district is incredibly diverse. The most important thing we can do in the school system is to expect respect to be the rule every day.”
“We have to keep our eyes and ears open,” agreed Mr. Banks. “With some of the rhetoric that has occurred nationally, it’s important for us to realize that we have to take the experience and feelings of people into account, and that impacts how we treat others.”
George Cork Maul contributed reporting for this story.