Riverhead declares state of emergency over fears of potential migrant influx

In a sign that the massive influx of migrants into New York City in recent months could spread to Long Island, Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar on Tuesday declared a state of emergency that prohibits facilities within the town from taking in migrants and other asylum-seekers.

The state of emergency declaration — an executive order — asserts that “all hotels, motels, bed and breakfast facilities, inns, cottages, campgrounds or any other transient lodging units and/or facilities allowing short term rentals do not accept said migrants and/or asylum seekers for housing” within the town.

The declaration was met with a variety of reactions.

Following Tuesday’s announcement in Riverhead, the Suffolk County Supervisors Association — which is comprised of the top officials in each of the county’s 10 towns — issued a statement Wednesday saying the association “wants it understood that the issue regarding immigrants and their placement in New York state is the sole responsibility of our federal government officials — the president and both houses of Congress.”

Also on Wednesday, former Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith sharply criticized the executive order, accusing the current board of “cooking up rumor-based fears about an immigrant invasion in an effort to distract and divide” by diverting attention from what she characterized as growing opposition to a potential development project at Enterprise Park in Calverton.

In a statement accompanying Tuesday’s executive order, town officials said that the “health and safety of the residents of Riverhead remains Supervisor Aguiar’s primary concern and top priority,” and suggested that Riverhead, in contrast to other county municipalities, cannot “withstand further demand on our public services.”

“Relative to the surrounding townships on the East End and throughout Suffolk County, Riverhead has done more than its share when it comes to housing the homeless, providing services and offering affordable housing and our resources and taxpayers simply cannot withstand further demand on our public services,” the statement said.

Town officials said in the statement that the declaration of a state of emergency was based on information that the New York City Department of Homeless Services “has or will be arranging for the transportation and relocation of undocumented immigrants and/or asylum seekers to hotels and motels within the Town of Riverhead.”

New York City Mayor Eric Adams said this week in a 1010 WINS radio interview that about 65,000 migrants and asylum-seekers have arrived in the five boroughs in the past year, stretching the city’s social services and shelter housing resources to the breaking point.

Although there are scores of so-called sanctuary cities around the country, New York City is the only major municipality in the nation which guarantees shelter to anyone seeking it. 

In the executive order, Ms. Aguiar notes that in and around Riverhead there are currently “an estimated 224 overcrowded apartments or over-occupied homes,” as well as, “91 unlawful apartments … 35 unsafe buildings … two large-scale, non-transient homeless shelters … 14 sober homes … and three outdoor homeless encampments.”

The order goes on to assert that “there is nothing humanitarian about a sanctuary city sending busloads of people to a rural [t]own that does not have the infrastructure to care for them, especially since social services funding is not applicable to undocumented individuals …”

A violation of an executive order is a class B misdemeanor under article 2-B, section 24 of the State Executive Law, according to Town Attorney Erik Howard, which can be punished with fines and/or a term of incarceration up to 90 days. 

Ms. Jens-Smith, a Democrat, said that the declaration of a state of emergency by Ms. Agiuar, a Republican, was legally unnecessary as Riverhead already has legislation in place to curtail temporary housing.

“The current Town Supervisor … should know that can’t happen as our town code already limits temporary housing to thirty days,” Ms. Jens-Smith said in her statement.  “Or she does know it can’t happen, but she won’t let that get in the way of using this baseless rumor to divert the attention of residents while fueling the fear-based, anti-immigrant fire that she has used in both prior elections.”

“That this announcement was released the night before our next town board meeting, which is likely to bring out more opposition to warehouses and jet cargo ports, could be coincidental,” Ms. Jens-Smith continued, referring to concerns about the EPCAL development. “Instead of looking to address what the public wants, our Town Board is looking to divert attention away from the real threats we are facing while taking the position of protector from these falsely fueled fears.”

During a heated exchange at Wednesday night’s Town Board meeting, Angela DeVito of South Jamesport said she was “somewhat shocked” about the declaration of a state of emergency.

“There’s really no hard evidence to support such a drastic action,” she said. “Where is this verifiable information concerning this imminent threat to the town of Riverhead?”

Councilman Tim Hubbard responded that “I’m not sure there is verifiable information. This move was a proactive move. Instead of waiting for it to happen and then standing there trying to figure it out, we have been proactive and we do not want this to happen in our town. We have no room in our infrastructure.”

On Friday, Miranda Perez, executive director of the Latino Advocacy Group (OLA) of Eastern Long Island said that Ms. Aguiar has “created a panic situation without being very specific.”

Ms. Perez said what concerns her organization most “is the legal process that resulted in this state of emergency. We’re looking into all the statutes that exist that guide someone in Yvette Aguiar’s position and call for the state of emergency.” 

Ms. Perez said she is aware of at least one Hispanic family — a mother and a nine-year old child — who have been displaced from a local motel following the state of emergency declaration.

Ms. Perez, who declined to identify either the motel or the mother and child, said the town had contacted the motel owner, who grew fearful of housing the mother and child but did not eject them himself. She said the mother and child’s sponsor family, who are local, grew concerned about their safety and decided to move them to another location while they straighten out their living situation

Ms. Perez said the incident is an example of how the existing state of emergency is “causing damage right now. 

“This woman and this nine year old child are basically having to be moved out of a normal motel stay of a couple nights. We’re worried about this happening, times a million.”