OLA Executive Director Minerva Perez speaks before the Southampton Town Board
OLA Executive Director Minerva Perez speaks before the Southampton Town Board

Organización Latino-Americana of the East End gathered a groundswell of community members to speak out at the Southampton Town Board’s Tuesday meeting in support of local legislation to protect law-abiding immigrants from deportation.

OLA Executive Director Minerva Perez had gathered a similar group of residents together to visit the Southampton and East Hampton town boards about a year-and-a-half ago, asking the towns to take a stand against authorizing local law enforcement to be deputized to act on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“We came because we were deeply worried about the possibility that many peaceful members of our community would be hurt by the direction ICE was going in,” Ms. Perez told the town board on Tuesday, as about two dozen other speakers also testified to her points. “We were right. They are being terrorized.”

Though the towns had agreed last year to not become a part of the ICE program, known as 287-G, “we need more than simply not doing the worst,” she told the board. “You are governing during a crisis of conscience that rivals that of 1938. These times demand leadership, clarity, the ability and political will to codify, in legislation, the deep love that I know you have for this community.”

“We need legislation that explicitly states how this town will protect peaceful members of our community now, not as an empty and toothless proclamation, but as a means to protect peaceful members of our community,” she added.

Ms. Perez asked the town to set clear guidelines for how its police department interacts with ICE on issues ranging from shared communication to acceptance of federal funds, and said that OLA’s attorney would be providing the town with draft legislation later this week.

“We are facing times that require a level of vigilance like none other. It is not politics anymore. It is people. Let’s do this together,” she said.

OLA’s attorney, Andrew Strong, said the proposed legislation “doesn’t involve a huge leap for this town, but codifying it sends a message that ‘we see you and we support you,'” he said. “It’s not just citizens, residents and members of the Latino community that are confused. Law enforcement is confused. Clearly codifying it would represent a really positive step in this direction.”

The backbone of OLA’s request is that town police not honor so-called ‘administrative warrants’ from ICE, which are not signed by a judge and which have often been deemed to be in violation of immigrants’ Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful searches and seizures, and are often due to minor offenses like traffic violations. He also urged the town to set clear policies for how it shares information with ICE.

Mr. Strong said honoring administrative warrants and sharing information with ICE “ropes local law enforcement into doing the federal government’s job, creates a significant liability for the town and undermines community.”

He added that the legislation he plans to introduce is working in other communities in Westchester and New York City.

Patricia and translator Sandra Dunn
Patricia and translator Sandra Dunn

A woman named Patricia, who spoke Spanish and was translated for the board, declined to give her last name to the press, but she echoed the sentiment of many immigrants present when she said that, when lawful immigrants are afraid of the police, they don’t report crimes, which emboldens criminals.

“Bad, violent people are afraid of nothing, but good people are very afraid right now,” she said. “Maybe you can’t see it, but if you don’t protect good people, everybody loses.”

Her young daughter, fifth grader Angie Castille, also spoke.

“Sometimes really bad people think they can do whatever they want because they’re American,” she said. “But what does it mean to be an American? If you’re really American, your ancestors would be Native American, but most are not.”

Southampton Anti-Bias Task Force member Dianne Rulnick said she’s been doing a good deal of door-to-door canvassing lately, and she’s “never seen so much fear of the opposite, fear of our neighbors. It’s truly expressed in vibrant tones. it makes me fearful as I’m canvassing. The fear is palpable.”

She said she’d recently spoken with representatives of the Suffolk County Sheriff, who told her they are in favor of honoring administrative warrants from ICE.

Ms. Rulnick said she also recently did a ride-along with town police officers, who said they would like the community to be more open to immigrants, so that police would have less difficulty talking to immigrants and getting them to understand the town’s policies and procedures.

Ms. Perez, from OLA, has been working with town police for more than a year to help get patrol officers access to LanguageLine, an on-demand, telephone-accessed translation service that they can use to talk with people who don’t speak English.

Loretta Werner of Hampton Bays is a member of Neighbors in Support of Immigrants, and she said she firmly believes that “our town police department should not cooperate with ICE.”

“My neighbors are Latino and my neighbors are my neighbors. They are wonderful human beings,” she said. “I don’t want to see my neighbors scared of our police department.”

“Some of you want to believe that only violent criminals are being deported by ICE,” but that’s not true, said Kathryn Levy. “ICE’s net keeps widening and we should all pay attention to this,” she said, adding that Green Card holders and naturalized citizens are also being harassed by ICE.

“People born in this country are now being accused of having forged their birth certificates,” she added. “If that sounds familiar, it ought to.”

“In the first 10 months of this [national] administration, 695 Suffolk County residents were taken away by ICE,” said Sandra Dunn, a translator who lives in Hampton Bays. “That’s an average of about 70 a month or two to three per day. This is not just happening in California and other places. You have an opportunity and an obligation to protect all members of our community. This is an opportunity for you all to show real leadership. You cannot wait for Suffolk County to figure this out.”

“We can’t continue to think about this as something that affects only immigrants,” she added. “It affects the entire community.”

OLA attorney Andrew Strong
OLA attorney Andrew Strong

“I’m not over the images of kids, sometimes infants, being torn out of the arms of their parents by agents of our government and thrown into cages and lost in an administrative shuffle,” said Jonathan Haynes of Hampton Bays.

He spoke of numerous times of civil rights crises in U.S. history, including the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II, but said “the analogy that’s really sticking with me is the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.”

Mr. Haynes said that, “in a process that was extremely haphazardous and corrupt,” the federal government made a law that, should a slave escape to the north, they must be returned by local authorities in the north, or the authorities would face very high fines.

“They had to be brave. You don’t have to be that brave,” said Mr. Haynes. “Sitting on the fence may seem comfortable, but when the fence is Trump’s wall, you’d better get off it.”

Sarah Burr, a Southampton resident and former Manhattan immigration judge said she’s “seen a lot, but what I see nowadays is the worst, bar none.”

“ICE detainers are supposed to be supported by probable cause,” she said. “They are almost uniformly found to not have probable cause, and they’re often deemed unconstitutional by district courts.”

“Lawyers who defend immigrants are becoming more vehement in defending their clients,” she added. “This is certainly an area where attorneys are looking into these lawsuits. I would think that would be problematic to you.”

Nellie Amaya, who was detained by ICE in 2007, said she had papers allowing her to legally be in the U.S. for four years, and has two children who are American citizens. 

“We pay so much in taxes, and we don’t have one dollar back,” she said in English. “I get exhausted just going to the pharmacy because I don’t know who is there, if it’s a racist person.”

“I decided two months ago that it’s hopeless and I have to go back to my home. I prepared my little ones, but now I can’t leave this country because my daughter has medical issues,” she said.

“I beg you. I know you’re really close to all the community, and there are really human people on the board,” she said. “Now I have to stay here and fight again…. Invite the community to report criminals. They have to have protection when they go to report bad things.”

Kathryn Szoka of Progressive East End Reformers said that 45 percent of students in South Fork schools are Latino, and when that much of the population of a school is living in fear, “it affects our entire community.”

“As much as laws are essential, we must act from our heart,” she said. “At this point in time, it is morally imperative for the Town of Southampton to enact sensible legislation to protect peaceful residents of our community from detention and deportation by ICE.”

“There’s been a failure of leadership at the federal and county level, and we are living in a creeping police state,” she said. “We urge you to do the right thing and tell the police department how to do their job and disentangle from ICE.”

“We understand [Southampton Town Police] Chief Skrynecki is highly regarded and very professional,” said Michael Daly, who serves on the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force. “I personally believe he’s done a great deal to improve the decorum and outside professionalism of the police department. We believe it’s important that he follow the instructions the town board is giving to him in issues of this nature, with clear policies about traffic stops, and traffic checkpoints.” 

“Minor traffic infractions, without proper instructions, can lead to deportation if the police department is complacent with ICE,” he said. “It kind of is up to the heart or soul or compassion or whatever that individual officer may be feeling.”

Sister Mary Beth Moore of Centro Corazon de Maria in Hampton Bays said she’s worked with eight families since July in which the father has been deported.

“Our students, all of them, are suffering from fear,” said Lucius Ware of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a retired school administrator who does a good deal of work with the Hampton Bays School District. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my many decades in school work. Kids are scared, and I mean scared, and this board should really get with it. There’s no excuse in an intelligent community like this for kids to be afraid that their folks will be gone when they wake up in the morning.”

After taking just over an hour of testimony, the town board closed the public comment period without making any statements regarding the testimony they heard. 

OLA is planning a similar gathering of community members for the next East Hampton Town Board meeting.

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 editor@eastendbeacon.com

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