“Immigration violations are not crimes.”
That was the message delivered by Amol Sinha, director of the Suffolk County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, during a presentation at Thursday’s Town Board work session.
“So holding someone only under suspicion of immigration violations would be unconstitutional and there is [legal] case law to back all of this up,” said Mr. Sinha, an attorney.
During the Town Board discussion, Daniele Guillen, who works for Pathstone Organization, a non-profit that helps agricultural workers get training for jobs, said she herself came to America as an immigrant with her family when she was 12.
They left Honduras because it was not safe and they had start their lives all over again.
“We had to leave everything behind — it was not easy,” she said. “I am not a criminal. I am just a dreamer trying to make a change.”
The town has had recent discussions about immigration polices since members of the Riverhead Town Anti-Bias Task Force found comments made by some members of the Town Board may have undermined their work to try to bring the community together.
In addition, a website called Ohio Jobs & Justice PAC currently lists Riverhead as a “sanctuary city” and claims the town is lax on enforcement of immigration laws. The listing dates back to 2007.
Mr. Sinha said the negative connotation of “sanctuary city” is something happening nationwide.
“Pretty much every metro area and every major jurisdiction is considered a sanctuary community,” he said.
Immigration violations are civil — not criminal — violations, he said, adding that the U.S. Supreme Court has reaffirmed this.
“According to the federal law, police may not detain an individual or prolong traffic stops solely based on the suspicion that the individual has committed a civil immigration infraction,” Mr. Sinha said. “Under New York state law, police may only ask accusatory immigration questions if they are relevant to the crime that the person may be accused of and officers may not ask such questions solely based on suspicion that the person may be undocumented or has some other sort of immigration violation.”
Mr. Sinha added any policy or practice that would permit officers to stop people solely on suspicion of immigration violation would be “ill-conceived.”
“Such a policy would lead to instances of racial profiling, which is ineffective, illegal, and actually detracts from public safety,” he said.
If the Immigration and Customs Enforcement department, known as ICE, issues a detainer request for localities to hold on to someone for immigration investigation purposes but doesn’t have a criminal warrant, then the policy in Suffolk County and other jurisdictions is to not to honor those requests, Mr. Sinha said.
In the event that a detainee sues, there is also case law that indicates the local municipality is legally liable, Mr. Sinha added.
Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said at Thursday’s meeting that his department “follows the rules” by enforcing local and state laws, such as the penal codes and traffic laws.
However, he said, the police department will hold people for other agencies when there is a warrant and there have been very few people held by his department on immigration cases over the years.
“Immigration is up to the feds to take care of and they are charged with the enforcement of immigration,” he said, adding he believes Mr. Sinha “covered it pretty well as to what we’re allowed to do and not allowed to do.”
Councilman John Dunleavy, himself a former police officer, said after the meeting that while police must have a warrant to detain someone, he disagrees that illegal immigration is not a crime.
And Mr. Dunleavy said he still wants to see Riverhead removed from the list of “sanctuary cities” because he feels it tells outsiders that Riverhead doesn’t enforce its laws.
Supervisor Sean Walter said the town shouldn’t worry about the listing because said he believes it was probably developed by someone “sitting in his basement in his underwear.”
Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Apostolate said at the meeting that the perceived fear of police by the Hispanic community is overstated, as is the notion that Hispanic residents don’t pay taxes.
“Part of the immigrant dream is to own a business and own a house,” she said.
Sister Margaret also said she has not had any recent interaction with the Guardian Angels, who have vowed to protect Hispanics from gangs, and that she’d like to have them speak at the Spanish mass at St. John the Evangelist.
Mr. Walter said they only patrol the local area once or twice per week.
Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa has said recently they are still recruiting members in Riverhead and only have about four so far.
Mr. Walter said that over the past two years he’s been trying to get someone from the local Hispanic community help improve communications between the community and town officials.
“They have not come forward,” he said. “That line of communications needs to come to the town.”
Photo caption: Daniele Guillen, a Honduran immigrant who helps farm workers, tells her personal story to the Town Board at Thursday’s work session.