The crossroads of rising gang violence, immigration and social oppression took center stage Saturday at the Social Justice Diversity Summit hosted by Riverhead Town’s Anti-Bias Task Force.
Experts from various fields, representing a wide range of backgrounds, spoke in the Riverhead High School auditorium through the lens of criminal justice, educational disparities, housing discrimination, homelessness and other perspectives.
“As ambassadors for the Town of Riverhead, it is our goal today to bring a positive attitude, education to our community and build understanding,” said Connie Lassandro, the task force chair.
About a dozen speakers shared the stage, led by keynote speakers Richard Koubek of Long Island Jobs with Justice and Cathryn Harris-Marchesi and Olivier Roche, lawyers from the Hempstead-based firm Frederick K. Brewington.
The keynote speakers dealt mostly on immigration, specifically on how policies may or may not change under President Donald Trump and the role of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Their goals, they said, are to help educate people on their rights, including undocumented immigrants, and work with communities like Riverhead to break through the fear emanating. The speakers stressed the danger in lumping together all immigrants as criminals or gang members.
“We make it very difficult, as an example, for poor people and refugees to legally enter the country,” said Mr. Koubek, the community outreach coordinator with Long Island Jobs with Justice. “It’s been estimated that our economy creates 500,000 unskilled jobs a year, yet we only permit 5,000 unskilled workers to enter with legal visas.”
Mr. Koubek outlined some of the programs his organization has started to assist undocumented immigrants, which have taken on greater importance since November, he said. The organization trained about 125 people to accompany undocumented immigrants to deportation hearings and then recently expanded the program to help people at local courts, such as a family court or traffic court. An ICE hotline was set up so people can report the presence of ICE in a particular neighborhood by calling 516-387-2043. Rapid response networks in specific neighborhoods will work to verify if there’s an ICE raid. The program is just getting underway, he said, and Riverhead is one community where it’s starting.
“Now, this is the tough part, we’re hoping to recruit congregations to provide physical sanctuary to undocumented immigrants,” he said. “Physical sanctuary is really a step that’s enormous.”
Mr. Roche, a former Suffolk County district attorney who now focuses on immigration law, spoke of the expanded powers of the Department of Homeland Security through an executive order and its effect on recent undocumented immigrants.
“These individuals are considered a high priority for deportation,” he said. “In actuality, the only crime they have committed is seeking a better life for themselves and their family.”
Mr. Roche, whose parents came from Haiti, described how the odds are stacked against families faced with immigration proceedings. The burden is on the immigrants to prove they belong, he said.
Ms. Harris-Marchesi, a Canadian immigrant, said undocumented immigrants still have rights, such as police needing a warrant to enter a home, or probable cause to be searched.
“The thing I advise the most is try to stay out of trouble,” she said, noting how even minor offenses like a petit larceny can set an immigrant on a path toward deportation.
Presenters spoke on various topics below:
Joselo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant whose brother Marcelo was murdered in a hate crime in Patchogue in 2008, shared his story and the work he now does as an outreach coordinator through the Hagedorn Foundation.
“I fight for justice for my brother, I fight for justice for my friends,” he said.
His goal, he said, is to educate people, beginning with kids to show them what is right and wrong.
“You see kids from Central America, they are running for their life,” he said. “They are victims in their own country … plus now they are victims of immigration. We have to do something. We have to stand up for these people.”
Risco Mention-Lewis, the Suffolk police deputy police commissioner, and Sgt. Joseph Nasta of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Gang Unit outlined how each of their departments are working to combat gang violence.
“Young people don’t feel safe,” Ms. Mention-Lewis said. “People came here to have a better life, but they’re being preyed upon in these neighborhoods.”
Sgt. Nasta described how the gang unit gathers intelligence by dealing directly with criminals in jails after they’re arrested. There are currently about 1,300 inmates between the Riverhead and Yaphank jails and as of last week at least 271 are confirmed gang members, he said. The gang unit coordinates with all law enforcement agencies from local levels to the FBI to distribute intelligence that can be used to thwart future crimes or bring in more arrests, he said.
“Our goal is to try and uncover as much as this stuff before it goes bad as we can,” he said.
While MS-13 has generated headlines for the heinous crimes recently committed, Sgt. Nasta said officers must navigate at least 36 different types of gangs currently in the jail as many as 175 in Suffolk County.
He noted how when gang graffiti appears in a neighborhood, it’s important to have police document that before it’s cleaned so the gang units can keep tabs on the location of gang members.
Sharon Mullon, the fair housing coordinator of the Long Island Housing Partnership and Ian Wilder, the deputy executive director of Long Island Housing Services, outlined the work they do in their respective organizations.
“We are trying to promote integration and fair opportunity for housing for everyone,” Ms. Mullon said.
“People should have the opportunity to live in what’s called a high opportunity area,” Mr. Wilder said. “That means there are certain areas where you have access to jobs, social networks. It will give you better opportunities in life, it’ll give you different opportunities. And you should have the ability to have those opportunities if you choose to seek them.”
Greta Guarton, the executive director of Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, described how her organization tracks the number of homeless people in Nassau and Suffolk counties and works to help those people find permanent housing. The number has hovered around 4,000 in recent years, she said.
This year, however, when the count was done in January five days after the inauguration, the street count shot down in half.
“This year people were literally running from us,” Ms. Guarton said. “Even those who knew who were are.”
She also described the coalition’s effort related to the housing first model, which focuses on finding homes for people who are chronically homeless, meaning living on the street for at least a year.
“We’re focused on getting them housed first,” she said. “We’re not making sure that they’re perfectly sober and are clean for 10 years before we offer them a place to live.”
Photo caption: Risco Mention-Lewis, the Suffolk police deputy police commissioner, speaks at Saturday’s summit. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)