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New York City drops lawsuit against Riverhead over migrant housing

New York City has dropped its lawsuit against Riverhead Town over an ongoing executive order which prohibits the housing of asylum-seeking migrants from New York City in the town’s hotels, motels and shelters, Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said at a press conference Thursday morning.

In June, the city filed a lawsuit against Suffolk County, Riverhead and 29 other municipalities for issuing “unlawful emergency executive orders” which were intended to prohibit the city “from arranging for even a small number of asylum seekers to stay … within their jurisdiction,” the lawsuit stated.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and Ms. Aguiar said she has not personally been in contact with city officials and doesn’t know why the suit was dropped, but the city has reportedly dropped similar lawsuits against Suffolk County and the other municipalities.

Last month, a State Supreme Court judge in Manhattan ruled that the city would have to fight each of nearly three dozen municipalities in each county or town’s courts, one by one.

In May, Riverhead became the first municipality on Long Island to issue an executive order declaring a “state of emergency” prohibiting local hotel and motel owners from signing deals with the city to temporarily or permanently house asylum seekers. The order has been renewed weekly ever since, and will continue to be renewed, the supervisor said.

“Not only would this be this type of emergency, [a] housing emergency [would] be in violation of our codes. But in addition, it will limit hotel space during our busiest tourist season, thereby threatening the existing local jobs, the economy that our community depends on,” the supervisor said Thursday.

Ms. Aguiar went on to say that “it’s a matter of protecting my town and protecting our own homeless population. We have three [homeless] encampments here that we constantly are working with.” She said the majority of the town’s homeless population are U.S. military veterans.

“We need to take care of the people … who served our country … some of them [have] PTSD, and are ill and need assistance and we need to take care of our homeless.”

Riverhead’s ongoing executive order states 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.”

Less than two weeks after Riverhead’s initial declaration, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone followed suit and issued a countywide state of emergency. Governor Kathy Hochul also declared a statewide emergency over the vexing and controversial issue.  

The debate over housing migrants bussed to New York City from the southern border has remained largely split along party lines since the spring. The supervisor was flanked at Thursday’s press conference outside Town Hall by the Riverhead’s all-Republican town board, as well as Republican state Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio.

Earlier this month, Long Island Republicans including Representative Nick LaLota and state Sen. Anthony Palumbo demanded that Gov. Kathy Hochul rescind New York’s self-designation as one of 11 “sanctuary states,” the product of an executive order issued by former Mayor Andrew Cuomo in 2017.

New York City’s sanctuary status is based on a 1979 court decision which found that the right to shelter for homeless men is included in the state constitution, citing the article XVII phrase “the aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state and by such of its subdivisions.” The issue arose in a lawsuit against the city filed by the Coalition for the Homeless. The mandate was extended to women and families with children in 1981.

Andrew Leven, a Democratic candidate for Riverhead town board, said he believes the town must be “at the table” to help work through a crisis that will ultimately impact the whole state.

“I think that Riverhead needs to be at the table with various governmental agencies and New York City to sit down and put together a comprehensive plan that funds the placement of migrants in various communities, so that Riverhead can decide whether or not it wants to participate.

“However, today there is no such plan and there is no short term prospect for such a plan being formulated. On that basis I don’t think Riverhead should be accepting undocumented migrants who are bussed to us from other communities.

“Let’s talk” about the issue, Mr. Leven added, “but right now, it’s chaos, and right now we don’t need that.”

Mr. Leven said he disagreed with the use of preemptive actions such as Riverhead’s state of emergency declaration.

“This is too important an issue to deal with hypotheticals,” he said. “My understanding is that is what Riverhead is nevertheless doing. We need to proceed carefully here and it is not at all clear to me that emergency decrees in the absence of actual facts are the way to do that.”

Ms. Aguiar initially said that the original executive order prohibiting the placement of migrants in Riverhead was in reaction to information she learned New York City Police Department sources, as well as a talk radio show hosted by Guardian Angel Curtis Sliwa. The supervisor is a retired NYPD detective sergeant.