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Suffolk Pushback on City Busing ‘Panics’ Migrants

Thu, 06/22/2023 - 11:43
An executive order signed by Riverhead's town supervisor last month that prohibits motels and other transient housing from hosting migrants from New York City “is, by far, one of the worst seen across the State of New York,” one that “set a horrific precedent,” said Minerva Perez, the executive director of OLA.
Durell Godfrey

Organizacion Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island has hired immigration and civil rights attorneys following a flurry of policy pronouncements, lawsuits, and rumors at the town, county, and state levels, resulting for some immigrants in the kind of fear and insecurity that prevailed during the first years of the Trump administration.

OLA, as it is commonly known, recently hired Wanda Sanchez Day, a civil rights attorney, as its general and senior policy counsel, and Lucia Damerau, an immigration attorney, to direct its immigration legal services.

OLA’s announcement came in the wake of the Suffolk County Legislature’s June 1 vote to hire outside counsel to advise on blocking the arrival of migrants bused to the county from elsewhere, New York City in particular. That vote, in turn, followed a May 26 emergency order by the county executive, Steve Bellone, that is meant to ensure “a coordinated response to the ongoing crisis and help protect the financial interests of the County,” according to a statement from his office.

The order formalized the county’s objection to the city’s “current approach of busing asylum seekers to random hotels across the state.” It requires that hotels, motels, and shelters obtain the county’s permission to contract with another municipality to house asylum seekers, with the outside municipality responsible for costs expended by any municipality within Suffolk.

It also created a county team comprising Mr. Bellone’s office, the Social Services Department, and the Police Department to coordinate directly with the state and with local not-for-profit organizations “regarding resources that are available to assist in meeting the challenges faced by those impacted by this ongoing situation.”

As New York City struggles to absorb “unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers,” according to its lawsuit against more than 30 municipalities including Suffolk County and Riverhead Town, it “has sought to utilize hotel rooms outside the City to provide temporary housing assistance for a small number of asylum seekers” at the city’s expense, according to its complaint. But the municipalities seek “to wall off their borders. They have tried by multiple methods to block New York City from arranging for even a small number of asylum seekers to stay in private hotels within their jurisdictions . . . amidst a major humanitarian crisis.”

In Riverhead, Supervisor Yvette Aguiar signed an executive order last month that prohibits motels and other transient housing from hosting migrants from New York City. That order, said Minerva Perez, OLA’s executive director, “is, by far, one of the worst seen across the State of New York,” one that “set a horrific precedent.” The order, she said, “is not pointing to contracts with government and the city. It is simply saying, ‘we are disallowing independent businesses — motels, Airbnb, any transient lodging — to rent to migrants or asylum seekers.’ How are we gauging that? The level of discrimination is certainly blatant.”

As the East End’s hub, “people might find they want a hotel while visiting family, or deciding they want to live on the East End like so many thousand city folks did during Covid,” Ms. Perez said. “And maybe they find there is work here and want to stay a while as they scope out where they might want to live. This happens every day, it’s the nature of our region,” she said, citing the tourism and service economies, which are struggling with staffing shortages.

Of Riverhead’s executive order, “OLA feels there should be more challenge coming from the governor’s office, and there should have been more from the county.”

The rising emotions, and resulting emergency orders and litigation, may be due in part to a rumor, Ms. Perez said. Ms. Aguiar and Curtis Sliwa, a talk-radio host and former candidate for mayor of the city, appeared on Newsmax, a conservative cable news company, last month, during which the supervisor said she had “verifiable information that [migrants] were on their way to Riverhead.” She did not elaborate, but did falsely assert that homeless veterans had been displaced from an Orange County hotel by asylum-seekers.

“Riverhead officials didn’t even bother to check into rumors being spread by the vigilante, admitted-liar, right-wing cable news shock jock and failed NYC mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa about NYC’s plan to bus migrants to ‘gang-infested’ Riverhead,” a May 22 RiverheadLOCAL editorial complained. “Seems they didn’t even bother to discuss it with the town’s own chief of police, who told RiverheadLOCAL there was ‘no credible information’ about this. ‘Just rumors.’ “

“How irresponsible and shameful to bring that level of fear, panic, and hatred to a community as diverse and needing love and support and resources as Riverhead,” Ms. Perez said. “Were there busloads? No. Giant siege? No.”

“Unfortunately, we’re now in a position where people all around New York are falling all over each other to prove that they will not welcome these asylum seekers in our area,” County Legislator Bridget Fleming said last week. “It started because someone was on a podcast basically saying hotels in Riverhead had gotten these calls.”

Ms. Fleming voted against hiring outside counsel, which she believes was intended “to send a message that asylum seekers are not welcome here,” she said. Mr. Bellone’s emergency order was “generally well-intended,” she said. “It is critically important to coordinate with the state and federal government in the face of what is a tragic practice of moving human beings from one state to another. We have to take it seriously and approach it thoughtfully, with an eye toward being responsible and supporting public safety.”

The county should be prepared for “a responsible handling if folks come here,” she added, “but we do not have any concrete understanding that that’s happening. I believe the steps taken by the Legislature were simply to make a statement, and it’s not a statement I’m willing to sign off on.”

In a May 17 statement, Representative Nick LaLota thanked Ms. Aguiar “for taking affirmative steps to keep our community safe.” In a press conference last month, he said that though Suffolk County is 2,000 miles from the nation’s southern border, “we have become a border county because of the Biden Administration’s failed border policies and the sanctuary city policies of New York City, which have tended to become a magnet, drawing people across that southern border.” Through its elected officials, Suffolk, he said, has put itself “on a different trajectory. We have different values that honor law-abiding citizens and taxpayers before anybody else.”

East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said Tuesday that the town board has not discussed the possibility of asylum seekers arriving here. “We don’t have housing for the people here now,” he said. If asylum seekers were to arrive in the town, “we’d deal with it then,” he said. “But I don’t know how we could plan for that so much. The hotels are all full.”

The supervisor has received emails from people “much farther west” of the town, he said, “urging me to take action against the threat of migrants coming here, that we take affirmative steps, like Riverhead. I don’t know that there has been any credible information to date that would suggest we will be seeing migrants on Long Island. But I think it’s all hypothetical at this point. . . . Some of this is obviously politically motivated.”

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said last week that the governor’s office had told him that the rumor of migrants en route to Riverhead was unfounded. “We do have a crisis in affordability here, and a growing homelessness issue because of it, as well as other factors,” he said. “It would be a challenging place to provide housing, so . . . I don’t suspect that they’ll turn to the East End of Long Island as a viable location.”

“We have people in this community who we don’t know, per se, or ask what their immigration status is,” Mr. Schneiderman added. “But if there’s a fire, you better believe we will rush in to save their lives. We’re talking about human beings here, and we need to respond in a way that is respectful of human dignity and human life.”

“I’m feeling similar to what I felt during a past presidential era,” Ms. Perez said. Elected officials, she said, should “recognize their role to mitigate sentiments” against migrants “in the moment, not later.”

“Of course, these are challenging times,” she said. “But that’s when leaders step up.”

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