It was Suffolk County Community College’s official Constitution Day Monday as students rushing to classes on the Eastern Campus in Riverhead got a first-hand look at the messy process of democracy, when Congressman Lee Zeldin came to campus for a forum billed as an Immigration Roundtable.
The roundtable, which was closed to the public but open to the press, included representatives from Homeland Security Investigations; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; local law enforcement, the Long Island Farm Bureau; Thea Fry of the Concerned Citizens of Hampton Bays, which has concerned itself with overcrowded housing in that hamlet; and the grieving family of 16-year-old Justin Llivicura, who was murdered by members of the gang MS-13 in Central Islip in 2017.
In a session just over an hour long, members of law enforcement gave an overview of their work tracing gang violence and drug and human trafficking, while members of the Farm Bureau asked for help obtaining more visas for farm workers.
Outside, a crowd of about 60 immigrant advocates, who had just been made aware that the roundtable would be closed to the public, gathered and were joined by some students who, en route to and from classes, stopped to see what the hubbub was about and joined in, scrawling hand-written signs in support of immigrants on pieces of cardboard.
Inside the Montaukett Building on campus, Congressman Zeldin was joined by House Committee on Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia in listening to members of law enforcement in attendance.
Mr. Zeldin focused in his opening remarks on gangs like MS-13, plugging his work on the Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act, which passed the House of Representatives and is currently being considered by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. He said that he hopes the Senate passes the bill so that it can be signed by the president.
“This administration has taken a hard stance against gang activity,” he said. “Some people want to shield removable criminal aliens.”
Mr. Zeldin said that 28 percent of unaccompanied minors who come to the United States from Latin America join gangs.
“I asked Chairman Goodlatte to travel to Long Island for the purpose of hearing from our local law enforcement on their exceptional efforts to keep our communities safe, as well as help identify policy solutions to give our law enforcement additional tools and resources,” he added.
Mr. Goodlatte said that gangs “have advanced beyond their traditional role as local retail drug distributors and become more organized, adaptable, deliberate and influential in large scale drug trafficking. Gangs like MS-13 have gained greater control over drug distribution outside urban centers in suburban and rural areas, under an umbrella of extreme violence.”
He added that members of gangs currently cannot be deported until they commit a crime, adding that the Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act would allow the federal government to deport such gang members before they commit a crime.
“I hope the Senate will pass it soon,” he said.
Suffolk County Police Chief of Detectives Gerard Gigante gave an extensive presentation on his department’s work. He estimated that 600 MS-13 members “and associates” currently live in Suffolk County, and 400 members of the gang have been arrested in the county since 2016.
Mr. Gigante agreed that unaccompanied minors who travel to the United States from Latin America are the most at risk of being recruited by gangs.
“While the vast majority of these children live law-abiding lives, many of them are vulnerable to gang recruitment – they’re young, alone and adjusting to a new country, culture, language and seeking a sense of belonging,” he said, adding that he believes people who serve as sponsors of these children need to be better vetted to ensure they don’t have criminal ties.
“We need to mitigate problems with sponsors,” he said.
He also highlighted the county police department’s work creating the Long Island Satellite Intelligence Center, which provides streamlined information sharing between law enforcement agencies, and said the county is working to connect East End police departments to their intelligence network.
Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Angel Melendez said his unit has arrested 20 human traffickers and rescued 48 victims here in 2018.
“The most recent one was last month when we were able to rescue a 15-year-old girl who was being trafficked by MS-13 here in Suffolk County, in Brentwood,” he said. “She was raped multiple times and was being held captive and exploited sexually.”
Mr. Melendez said he believes many problems faced by his department stem from an insecure southern border.
“If we had more secure borders, there wouldn’t be the need for so much internal enforcement,” he said.
Sixteen-year-old Justin Llivicura’s family, visibly shaken and tearful at the death of their son at the hands of MS-13, were mostly at a loss for words. His father and sister were mournful as his mother, Blanca, remembered her son as a “humble boy who never had a problem with anyone” and thanked everyone in the room for remembering her son’s name.
East End police chiefs briefly weighed in.
Southampton Police Chief Steven Skrynecki said schools here have robust Student Resource Officer programs, in which police officers are in the schools developing relationships with students, and said he was interested in more funding for gang and opioid addiction issues.
Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley agreed.
“Children in school districts are very vulnerable, and all of us are amping up our Student Resource Officer programs,” he said.
Long Island Farm Bureau President Karl Novak asked the congressmen to see what can be done to create a viable guest worker visa program.
“Not since the 1980s have you done anything,” he said, adding that the immigrants who get visas to work in his nursery business “are hardworking, honest people who want to live the American dream.”
Mr. Goodlatte said he agreed with Mr. Novak’s assessment, but cautioned that, under former President Ronald Reagan’s guest worker program “half of the people left agriculture once they got their green card.”
Southampton Town Councilman John Bouvier was the one elected official who showed up and managed to talk his way into the room, but he wasn’t introduced or given a chance to speak.
Mr. Bouvier said after the forum that neither he nor any immigrant advocacy groups were invited.
“We need all people in the room, not just the ones that nodded their heads in agreement,” he said. “This is not working together.”
Outside, as the roundtable was ending, Richard Koubek of Long Island Jobs with Justice was attempting to organize the crowd to turn their backs on Mr. Zeldin as he exited the building. But many people there didn’t like the idea, saying they thought it was disrespectful. They agreed instead to stand, either silently or uttering the word “shame” as attendees exited the meeting. It turned out to be a moot point — Mr. Zeldin didn’t come out of the front door of the building, where the crowd was gathered.
Mr. Kubiak said no immigrant advocacy groups that he is in regular communication with had been invited to the forum, but referred to the Concerned Citizens of Hampton Bays as a “known hate group,” musing why they had been allowed a seat at the table.
Ms. Fry, of Concerned Citizens of Hampton Bays, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Southampton Town Board last year, sat at the table with other participants in the forum, but did not speak.
Mr. Koubek said the crowd outside was initially told they would need to move to the gate outside the campus, on Speonk-Riverhead Road, before college officials acquiesced and let them stay outside the Montaukett Building.
Suffolk County Community College Spokesman Drew Biondo, who stood with the crowd of immigrant advocates and numerous police and campus security officers outside the building, said the college had agreed to the Congressman’s visit without asking whether the forum would be open to the public.
“That’s not for us to decide,” he said.
Looking around at the large police presence, activist Lisa Votino-Tarrant mused that she had gone to an event that former Congressman Tim Bishop held the day after former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot at a community event in Arizona, and Mr. Bishop had only one police officer with him.
Councilman Bouvier gave the crowd an account of what he had witnessed in the meeting, which he described as a self-congratulatory gathering of law enforcement officers, in which the issue of gangs repeatedly overshadowed the discussion of other immigration issues.
“The conflation of the issues was intentional,” he said of gangs and immigration.
Flanders, Riverside & Northampton Community Association’s first Latina board member, Paola Zuniga, told Mr. Bouvier that she feels she is targeted every day by police in the community because of her ethnicity.
Mr. Bouvier said he believes Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki is sensitive to issues facing immigrants, and said he believes it’s important for immigrants to know “you have rights in this community.”
Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island (OLA) Executive Director Minerva Perez was also among the crowd outside. OLA is working to gather a groundswell of community members to speak out at South Fork town board meetings later this month for local legislation to protect law-abiding immigrants from deportation.
Ms. Perez helped gather a similar groundswell of community members in early 2017 to ask South Fork leaders to take a stand that they would not take part in the Trump administration’s program allowing local law enforcement officers to be deputized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enforce immigration laws.
“We want to make a legislative proposal to the towns that draws a thick line of oversight and accountability, so they’re not complicit in the deportation of non-violent immigrants,” she said. “We need protections. Families are being separated right here and now for non-violent offenses.”
Ms. Perez said that she’d recently heard from one family, among many she hears from on a regular basis, where the father had been detained and deported after being pulled over for having an obstructed license plate, when police found out his driver’s license had been suspended over an administrative issue. He had been supporting his wife and children, including a one-and-a-half-month-old baby who is a U.S. citizen.
“This is a new world and we have to craft how to protect our people in a new world,” she said. “It’s happening and it’s real.”
OLA is planning to gather people to speak at the Southampton Town Board’s meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 25 at 6 p.m., and at the East Hampton Town Board’s meeting on Thursday, Sept. 27 at 6:30 p.m.