Column: Before you debate immigration, check your sources

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Riverhead’s presence on an online list of so-called sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants has inspired a fair amount of navel-gazing in recent weeks about the town’s immigration enforcement policies.

The list appears on the website of the Ohio Jobs and Justice PAC, a one-man show run by Cleveland resident Steve Salvi that advocates for increased immigration enforcement and warns about the supposed dangers posed by undocumented immigrants.

Mr. Salvi said Riverhead earned its spot on the list not because of any official policy but because it meets his criteria as a “de-facto” immigrant haven based on research he’s done from about 600 miles away.

In response, Town Board members John Dunleavy, Jodi Giglio and George Gabrielsen have all said they want stepped up enforcement from the town’s police department, which is already strapped for resources to deal with town crime, let alone playing the role of border patrol agent as well.

Mr. Dunleavy in particular told the News-Review his chief concern is getting Riverhead off Mr. Salvi’s list. At risk, Mr. Dunleavy says, is Riverhead’s reputation. Unwittingly, by focusing on this unofficial website, the Town Board has given this one man’s list far more power over Riverhead than it ever had before.

Those who have publicly pooh-poohed Riverhead’s inclusion on the list are inexcusably forgetting a golden rule of today’s hyper-connected online age: Just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s true.

Supervisor Sean Walter hinted as much during a discussion last week, just moments after immigration advocates and town civil rights leaders gently reminded the town that their proposed policy change would violate the Constitution and promote “racial profiling.”

Mr. Walter said Mr. Salvi was probably “sitting in his basement in his underwear.”

During a phone interview, Mr. Salvi called the charge “sort of ridiculous.”

“Maybe he made that comment in his underwear,” Mr. Salvi shot back.

But check out the group’s website yourself and you’ll be forgiven for thinking Mr. Walter isn’t far off. You’ll find a site that looks like it was built in the days of Geocities, with colorful text, clip art and boxed-in backgrounds straight out of the mid-’90s.

It’s a long, rambling webpage that at once rails against “idiot leftist demagogues” while accusing a judge of being a “biased ethnocentric” and listing the Republican Party’s “open borders weasels” (for example, Jeb Bush).

To be fair, Mr. Salvi tones down his rhetoric in the site’s introduction. “OJJPAC is a non-partisan educational civil rights and advocacy organization focusing on important public policy issues that affect Ohio and the nation,” he states. “It is dedicated to conflict resolution, violence prevention, and advancing social and civil cohesiveness in the U.S.”

But it’s so hard to take the man seriously when one of his links is headlined: “Obama’s former Kenyan illegal alien auntie becomes queen of immigrant entitlement.”

A quick check of OJJPAC’s online following would have given Riverhead Town another big clue about the group’s reach.

For a purported nationally focused group, OJJPAC is apparently tiny. An online fundraiser aiming to secure $50,000 for Mr. Salvi to run the website has so far raised just $450 in more than a month.

The group’s Facebook page has little more than 550 followers; for perspective, Diggers Ale’s and Eats on West Main Street has about four times as many.

Mr. Salvi claims the website pulls in about 250,000 hits a month. Both the Riverhead News-Review and Riverhead Local, which have reported multiple times on this controversy, generate magnitudes more readership.

Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with Mr. Salvi’s actions or his speech. He’s legally free to publish his website, attract his following and share his opinions on how to solve America’s immigration problems. That’s his right.

And talking to Mr. Salvi on the phone, surprisingly, seems to indicate he’s more reasonable than his website or his posts would make you think. Unsurprisingly, he claims to have a history running political campaigns.

When asked why his website seems so hyperbolic, Mr. Salvi said he hasn’t checked the content of his site in a while.

“I’ll have to look at it,” he said.

But a majority of Riverhead’s Town Board members seem to have taken him at face value.

When we’re talking about issues as important as immigration and law enforcement, our elected officials have to consider the sources they’re pulling from. These discussions require careful research and nuanced discussion, not impassioned reactions to online lists of dubious authenticity.

It’s ludicrous to consider policy changes — which could affect thousands of people and potential embroil the town in legal challenges — because the board is embarrassed by one man’s website.

The Town Board has heard from immigration advocates, a civil liberties organizer and the town’s own police chief, who explained Riverhead’s situation as he sees it on the ground.

Equal among those voices: a guy from Ohio.

The author is the web editor for the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 631-354-8018 or [email protected]