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Immigration

The 2020 U.S. Census could be pivotal for New York, which could potentially lose one or two U.S. reps from a general loss of population. Stock photo

It’s a once-in-a-decade request, and this year’s census could determine just how much local schools, governments and nonprofits get in aid from the federal government. Not to mention, this year’s count could determine if New York could be sending one or two less U.S. representatives to Washington out of its current total of 27.

It has enough officials worried that New York State is funneling money around to different counties to get people to fill in the survey. Suffolk County is expected to receive $1.019 million toward its efforts. Officials have called for additional funds toward the census in this year’s budget, though most don’t expect the money to materialize before the census starts rolling in mid-March. New York State has made $20 million available of a total of $60 million to go toward engagement efforts in local municipalities. $15 million is going to the state’s 62 counties. 

“It’s the principle that we count, and we should be counted.”

— Martha Maffei

This year, galvanizing the populace to take the census has become a phenomenon, with players at the state, county and local level putting a heavy emphasis on this year’s survey. On the line, advocates say, is a correct political representation on a federal level as well as $675 billion annually in federal funds for prioritizing road work, school aid, grants and Medicaid funding.

Due to the 2010 census, New York lost two congressional seats, and some have said this year’s count could lose the state one or two more. Local groups, both small and large, have the task of energizing enough people to gain an accurate headcount. 

Like herding cats, that’s much easier said than done

Suffolk County Complete Count Committee was created in 2019 in part by the nonprofits Health & Welfare Council of Long Island and Long Island Community Foundation to generate engagement for those efforts.

Rebecca Sanin, president of HWCLI, said they have around 300 groups, including nonprofits, religious organizations, business organizations and governments, participating at least to some degree in outreach among 11 subcommittees. The nonprofit has also established guidebooks and graphics for everyone from immigrant leaders to hospitals to senior citizens.

“We’re really trying to build momentum, where the end is a 10-year funding impact to our region,” Sanin said. 

The committee has become a hub for joining up the disparate groups looking to promote the census. The state has its own CCC, and other counties have been encouraged to create their own committees. County Executive Steve Bellone (D) was named to the New York State Complete Count Committee by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). 

“Suffolk County is not only the largest suburban county in the state of New York, but we have the fourth largest and hardest-to-count populations in New York state,” Bellone said during a 2019 meeting with the Suffolk Complete Count Committee. Approximately 40 percent of county residents live in hard-to-count areas, he said.

People will start to see this year’s census mailed out in mid-March, and the census process continues for the next several months. Stock photo

County officials have hosted census job fairs this year and last, with positions paying $17 to $23 an hour.

Governments at both county and town level have started putting notices of the census in official emails and releases. Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) had been drafted to partner with the complete count committee. She said the town is working on a project with the tax receiver’s office to send out a reminder in the midyear tax receipts that goes out to every household in Brookhaven. They have also started to include information about the census in town programs hosted this year and had representatives from the census table at town events.

“Undercounting of communities can have a domino or ripple effect on community projects and issues for years to come,” the councilwoman said in an email. “A complete and accurate count of your community can result in improved infrastructure and schools, better community health and programs and much more.”

Steven Collins, who works for the U.S. Department of Commerce as a partnership specialist for the census in Suffolk, said the big game changer this year is the now-four different ways residents are going to be able to respond to the census. People can now respond over the internet, over the phone or using the usual mailed in paper survey. The fourth way is when all other options are exhausted, and when census operators have tried to reach an individual by several other means, an enumerator will knock on one’s door. 

Though not all see the incentivized online component as a good thing. Sanin said there are many who have a general distrust of putting information online, due to the many examples of private companies being hacked to get access to a user’s personal data. There is also a large digital divide, and many still do not have easy access or understanding how to use the online component.

Despite the online component, census promotion still requires boots on
the ground

Stony Brook University has been active in trying to get students signed up for the count but have also started concerted efforts to encourage indigenous groups, especially those living on Long Island’s South Fork, to sign on for the census.

Despite how seriously census takers have been in requesting surveys, that still has not stopped multiple areas coming back with low response rates, some barely above 50 percent. 

In Suffolk County presentations to the complete count committee, some communities are shown as much harder to count than others. While much of the North Shore shows a response rate of 70 percent or better, a large area in Huntington and Huntington Station, with sizable minority populations, have a response rate of 60 percent, at worst. 

At www.censushardtocountmaps2020.usa, researchers have used previous census data to track which areas showed lower census participation.

In Brookhaven, one area with low turnout happens to be around the hamlets of Ridge and Upton and in Selden and Centereach, especially in the area along Route 112 that has a previous response rate of only 60 to 65 percent.

There are portions of Long Island with much worse representation. There are certain parts of West Babylon with a response rate as low as 0 to 60 percent.

SEPA Mujer, a nonprofit immigrants rights advocacy group, has chapters in several of the areas that show low response rates, including Riverhead, Huntington Station and Patchogue. Martha Maffei, the executive director of the nonprofit, said they have formed coalitions at two of their three chapters specifically to energize the community for the census. Many of their organizers and members have advocated for local immigrants to take the census which comes with the task of convincing the immigrant community the information will not be used against them by immigration enforcement.

“It’s the principle that we count, and we should be counted,” Maffei said.

Usually, she said, organizers take the tack of arguing that filling out the census will mean more funding for their school districts and how it will offer them better political representation. 

The complete count committee has organized 13 total groups on the immigration subcommittee who have all pledged to move through these communities. The issue, she said, is money, compounded with the amount of ground these volunteers have to cover, with only the some $1 million to be spread amongst all of Suffolk.

“Fear nurtures an undercount, and an undercount nurtures our continued inequity.”

— Rebecca Sanin

Still, she’s optimistic these hard-to-count areas will be more active than 2010. 

The census is meant to track everyone, including those undocumented immigrants, in order to get a full understanding of total population, but in 2019 the potential for a citizenship question to appear on the census created a tornado of partisan bickering, with opponents saying such a citizenship question would specifically target Latino groups and incentivize them to not respond to the census, thereby limiting the political capital such groups could wield. Officials said the pro-citizenship question was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965, designed to help blacks overcome legal barriers to voting during the Jim Crow era.

In November of last year, The New York Times reported on disclosures from the White House hinting that Republican strategists had political reasons for encouraging a citizenship question, that it would increase Republican influence and political power once totals for the census were drawn by undercounting residents in largely Democratic areas.

Judges ruled the question illegal under Title 13, which states the government can only use data from the census for statistical purposes. Collins reiterated there will be no citizenship question on this year’s census, and all information is kept extremely confidential and secure. 

Yet the idea still lingers in the minds of some residents, and it is something census advocates said they have had to work around.

Sanin and Maffei said the citizenship question has undoubtedly had a cooling effect toward the census, though to what extent is hard to gauge. 

“We feel we are going from one attack to another,” Maffei said. “There is a lot of trauma in this community.” 

The general distrust in government and in government systems is high, and trying to encourage people “living in the shadows,” as Sanin put it, is where much of the past year’s efforts have gone.

“Fear nurtures an undercount, and an undercount nurtures our continued inequity,” she said. 

Karen Bralove Stilwell offers supplies to immigrants at Juarez, Mexico, where immigrants were transferred. Photo from Melanie D’Arrigo

For the third time this month, Long Islanders on July 27 joined hands in Huntington to protest the mistreatment of immigrant children and families at the United States border with Mexico.  

Child promises to reject policies and practices founded in hate. Photo from Eve Krief

“This is not who we are,” they chanted and “Never again is now,” a reference to Jewish encampments in Nazi Germany. 

Some Long Island federal officials share their concerns. U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) has recently expressed outrage after returning from detention centers in McAllen, Texas.

Protesters called their rally “Don’t Look Away.” It was the eighth rally held in Huntington since people learned one year ago that the government was separating families at the border.  It was sponsored and co-sponsored by 50 different organizations related to immigration rights, human rights, and pediatric and activist groups. 

Federal lawmakers passed June 24 a $4.5 million emergency bill to address the migrant crisis. Despite the funding, Alethea Shapiro, one of the protesters, said that she is concerned that the bill that passed was strong on enforcement with less funds going toward humanitarian aid as prescribed in the U.S. House of Representatives’ original version of the bill.  

Shapiro was one of several women who have just returned from a humanitarian mission to El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, where some immigrants were transferred.

The women said that they offered supplies such as shoes, underwear and backpacks to immigrants, who were grateful.

Protesters parade the roadside with a cage filled with baby dolls to rally against U.S. immigration policies. Photo from Eve Krief

The protesters adopted the theme “Don’t Look Away” for their latest campaign. Their rally  comes in the wake of recent rules and bills that aim to address the crisis. The Trump administration recently posted a rule denying asylum to migrants that failed to seek asylum in the first foreign land they encountered when fleeing their homeland. District courts have now put the brakes on those limits until further review.

The U.S. Senate is considering a bill H.R. 2615 The U.S. Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act. If passed, the law would authorize economic aid and fight corruption in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the homeland of many migrants.

“It’s important for us to create continuous awareness of this humanitarian crisis happening at our southern borders,” said Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport). “We cannot rest until every child is safe, treated with dignity and provided basic necessities such as food, sanitary conditions and health care.”

Photo from Rep. Kathleen Rice

Since congressional leaders visited detention facilities at the U.S. border with Mexico in the last few weeks, readers have been reaching out to us about the immigration issue. Overall, these letters have a common thread: Continue to cover the topic.

As a community newspaper, our focus is mainly on local news, rather than international affairs. But, local elected officials are telling their constituents that border conditions are awful. Immigrants are living in cages and unusually crowded. We hear you and out of humanitarian concern promise to follow the issue. In turn, we ask you to stay in touch and share your perspectives. Your comments and criticism help us all become better informed.

Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives live in our circulation area: U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who lives in Glen Cove, runs an office in Huntington. His district includes parts of Queens and the North Shore of Long Island in Nassau and Suffolk counties extending west to include parts of Kings Park and Commack. U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who lives in Shirley, and runs an office in Patchogue, represents most of Suffolk County. 

Suozzi sits on the House Ways and Means Committee and is vice chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of 48 congressional leaders that are “not afraid to take on tough issues.”

Zeldin sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, which deals with issues related to Central America. It passed H.R. 2615, the bill that authorizes foreign assistance to fight corruption and improve economic conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, nations from which many immigrants originated. The bill currently awaits action in the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee.

People can contact Senators Charles Schumer (D) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D) on H.R. 2615, called The U.S. Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act, and other immigration issues. You can also leave messages with the White House on your position.  

One U.S. policy that may be the most unrealistic is expecting people to seek asylum in the first country they encounter. Immigrants often leave to escape violence and not all countries are bordered by nations able to protect them.

On July 16, the Trump administration published a new rule, 8 C.F.R. Parts 1003 and 1208 on the Federal Register, stating that any immigrant who fails to seek protection from a country outside their native land before crossing the U.S. border is ineligible for asylum.

On Long Island and nationwide, Catholic Charities is one the largest providers of legal services for all people in the immigrant community. They agree that policies need to be humane. Policies should not prevent people from seeking asylum.

We the people need to bear responsibility.  Call your elected officials today:

White House: 202-456-1111

Sen. Chuck Schumer: 202-224-6542

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: 202-224-4451

Rep. Tom Suozzi: 202-225-3335

Rep. Lee Zeldin: 202-225-3143 

Caged migrant children at U.S. Mexico border

By Donna Deedy

Local U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D–Glen Cove), after visiting detention centers along the southern United States border July 13 with 15 other House Democrats, has returned to his Huntington office alarmed. The situation, he said, is awful.  

U.S. Immigration Detention Center. photo from Tom Suozzi’s Office

“We need to make the humanitarian crisis at the border priority number one,” Suozzi said. “The system is broken.”

The group toured and inspected facilities that are currently holding Central American migrants seeking asylum and met with several migrant families to hear, first-hand, their experiences and what can be done to help.

“America is better than this,” he said. “I have worked on this issue since before I was elected mayor of Glen Cove in 1993 and I will continue to fight for solutions consistent with our American values.” 

During the visit, Suozzi learned that only 20 to 30 migrants seeking asylum are processed each day. This provides an incentive for people to cross in between ports of entry, he said, and once apprehended, they then turn themselves in to seek asylum. In turn, this leads to their detention.

“My recent trip to the border makes it clear that this issue is incredibly complicated and has been for decades. The policies and rhetoric from this administration have exacerbated the problem, permeating a culture of fear that forces many immigrants further into the shadows.” 

 The congressman is calling for action, insisting that all delegates work together to:

•Address the current humanitarian crisis at the border.

•Secure borders in a smart and effective way.

•Create stability in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that account for almost 90 percent of current immigrants.

•Protect the legal status of Dreamers and people with temporary protective status and their families with renewable temporary protection and a path to citizenship.

The tour coincided with rallies held in Huntington village and across the country and the world in protest of the policies and inhumane practices at U.S. border with Mexico. 

Suozzi was a guest on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on July 16, where he said that “the president has, once again, shifted the conversation away from important policy issues toward a racial divide in our country.”

The Rev. Duncan Burns, of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Huntington, attended the Huntington rally “Lights for Liberty” and spoke to the crowd that gathered July 12. Suozzi’s trip to the border, the reverend said, has sparked greater concern.

“We encourage people to raise their voices and to call their members of Congress to urge them to work together to find solutions,” he said. “The Episcopal Church is completely backing both parties to find a solution to this humanitarian crisis.”

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) did not respond to phone and email requests for comment on his position on the issue.

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SEPA Mujer shows their support for immigrants by donning yellow bracelets. File photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Everyone has an opinion on how to handle the border crisis. Having recently gone directly to the southwest border to talk about solutions with U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, recent migrants and local politicians, several things are clear.

Perry Gershon. Photo from SCDC

First, contrary to some of the national narratives, most border crossers today come to ports of entry and seek asylum. They do not dart or swarm the locations between ports of entry. Yes, there are some scrambling crossers, but the entire crisis has tipped toward ports of entry, which is why more efficiently processing asylum claims is so important and increasingly difficult.

Second, while human and drug trafficking are serious issues, these individuals do not comprise the bulk of current illegal crossers, even as numbers of Central American refugees continue to rise. Our border laws are designed to deter those sneaking into the country, not managing large volumes turning themselves in — hoping for asylum.

The bulk of those at our borders are economic migrants, some of whom may be entitled to asylum, but all of whom are fleeing a part of this hemisphere overwhelmed by public corruption, poverty, violent crime, drug trafficking and general disorder. 

This suggests a need not only for better processing of asylum claims, and more systematic ways of housing asylum seekers, but finding better ways to incentivize these economic migrants to stay in their countries of origin, rather than seeking escape, refuge and opportunity here. Rather than abandoning rule of law programs in these unstable Central American countries, we should be reinforcing stability and the rule of law.

Third, agents in places like Arizona speak with one, clear, consistent voice. They are legally able to monitor and enforce our border, and capture and turn illegal crossers over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but they are not responsible for processing, long-term detention or deportation. In effect, they are a small cog in a big machine, and what they face daily is both severe and growing. What they cannot control is the process of crafting a much-needed political solution.

Finally, no one can seriously discuss the border without discussing drug trafficking. Again, a dose of reality is vital. Drugs entering the United States over the southwest border include heroin, cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and fentanyl, as well as other synthetics. 

But these drugs are not typically hustled in the dark of night, between ports of entry, over big desert swatches. No, they are methodically trafficked through ports of entry — hidden in trucks and cars, and on rail cars. Many transporting these drugs are mules, beholden to powerful Mexican drug cartels. Poor people who desperately lack options often transport these drugs for the cartels or face death.  

Again, the answer must be multifaceted. First, we must work with the Mexican government to enforce their borders and get serious about stopping demand here. Second, we should provide more treatment for those seeking a way out of addiction. Third, and most important, we should be teaching kids to make smart and healthy choices by helping them never to feel desperate enough to turn to addiction.

What lessons can we draw from recent conversations from those on the front lines of our southwest border? Several are obvious. First, we need to have a more organized and efficient system to process the vast number of asylum seekers.

How do we do that? We need more administrative asylum judges, even if reassigned from other tasks temporarily. We need smoother, faster interfaces between CBP, ICE and the judicial system. In managing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services treatment of unaccompanied minors, who go from ICE to HHS after 20 days, we need more effective ways of protecting and processing claims. 

We need to work more closely with the Mexican government to agree on how to house the large numbers, optimally on the Mexican side of the border, which will prevent having to place large numbers of asylum seekers across the United States to await hearings. Finally, we should be asking Mexico to consider becoming a “safe third country” for asylum seekers, which would allow Central Americans to win asylum in Mexico also, reducing pressure on the U.S. border.

Last, and most important, we need to rethink how best to restore rule of law, stability, economic opportunity and foreign investment in Central America, to incentivize economic migrants to remain where they live, and to create opportunities and security there. This requires international engagement, and sustained commitments to neighbors. 

In the end, that investment will help us all. That is what going to the border taught me.

Perry Gershon is a national commentator on business, trade, policy and politics. A congressional candidate for New York’s 1st District, he holds a bachelor’s degree from Yale and a master’s in business administration  from University of California, Berkeley.

People at the June 7 rally held signs supporting Green Light NY bill. Photo by David Luces

After a contentious back and forth between state Democrats and Republicans, the green light bill, a measure that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license in New York State, passed the New York State Senate June 17 and was signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). 

The vote makes New York the 13th state in the nation to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. In the past, undocumented immigrants in New York were allowed to have driver’s licenses if they passed the required tests and proved their residency. In 2001, former governor George Pataki reversed the measure via executive order.

“Driving in New York State is a privilege, not a guaranteed right.”

— John Kennedy Jr.

Proponents of the bill say that the bill would improve public safety and the economy.

“Today is a historic day for New York’s hard working immigrant community,” said Steven Choi, the executive director at the New York Immigration Coalition. “We are glad to see that Governor Cuomo did the right thing by signing the Green Light NY bill into law.” 

In the lead up to the vote there was some hesitation of support from some Democrats, which critics attributed to being wary of backlash to the bill and its impact on the 2020 election year.

Jay Jacobs, The Nassau County Democratic chairman, warned the six senators who represent Long Island about the potential political backlash of supporting the bill, according to an article in Gothamist.  

Jacobs told Gothamist that he personally supports the legislation but believes the bill is too polarizing to pursue in the current legislative session.

The legislation moved forward without the support of the six Long Island Democratic senators, who all voted no, as well as three other Republican senators. 

“I am disappointed that the state lawmakers in Albany voted to approve this terrible piece of legislation,” John Kennedy, Suffolk County comptroller and county executive candidate, said in a statement. “Driving in New York State is a privilege, not a guaranteed right, and we should not be extending privileges to those who do not follow the law. I strongly urge the Governor to do the right thing and veto this legislation.”

Other Republicans in the state Legislature shared opposition to the green light bill.  

“This legislation is an outrage to law-abiding New Yorkers, as well as to new Americans that have taken the appropriate steps to become citizens legally,” New York State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said in a letter. “The overwhelming majority of New Yorkers oppose issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. And yet, that is exactly what Senate Democrats did.”

The Long Island Democratic Senate Delegation said in a statement that they value the important contributions made by immigrants to the local economy and communities. 

“Following countless meetings with stakeholders, residents, and advocates on the implications of this bill, our vote is based on the continued existence of serious concerns raised by stakeholders and law enforcement,” the statement read. “We will continue to stand together in the best interest of Long Islanders.”

Some lawmakers shared concerns that the  Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency could possibly obtain driver’s information and use it for deporting individuals.

Cuomo also raised similar concerns before the vote, stating that he would veto the bill if the federal government would be able to access driver’s information that could be used for deportation. He then asked the state attorney general to review the bill and would sign the bill if it didn’t give federal authorities access to DMV databases. 

State Attorney General Letitia James (D) wrote a statement the night of vote. 

“The legislation is well crafted and contains ample protections for those who apply for driver’s licenses,” James said in a statement. “If this bill is enacted and challenged in court, we will vigorously defend it.”

The bill would require undocumented immigrants to take a driver’s license exam and be able to buy car insurance. The measure would go into effect in 180 days and undocumented immigrants could get licenses starting
in December.

Patrick Young advocates for the Green Light NY bill to pass in the state legislature at the June 7 rally in Hauppauge. Photo by David Luces

Immigrant rights groups, religious leaders, labor union groups and residents rallied in Hauppauge June 7 to advocate for a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. 

People at the June 7 rally held signs supporting Green Light NY bill. Photo by David Luces

Proponents of the bill argue that it would improve public safety and the economy. The bill would require undocumented immigrants to take a driver’s license exam and be able to buy car insurance.  

“We are disappointed that the six Democratic senators have not come out in favor of Green Light yet,” said Patrick Young, program director of the Hempstead-based Central American Refugee Center. 

Jay Jacobs, the Nassau County Democratic chairman, recently said he called the six senators who represent Long Island to warn them about the potential political backlash of supporting the bill, according to an article in Gothamist.  

“Jay Jacobs advised them not to support the bill,” Young said. “There may be opposition to the bill, but the people who voted for [the senators] did oppose Green Light.”

According to Young, many of the senators campaigned in support of the bill but now have changed their stance. One of those he said in particular was New York State Sen. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood). 

“She said she would support it, now she’s saying she’s not supporting it,” he said. “We need her to come back on board.” 

After the rally, volunteers began calling the six Long Island state senators in hopes of getting them to reconsider their stance on the bill. 

“We told them if you don’t vote for it for political reasons, we will start this campaign back up again in January,” he said. “This is not going away.”

Republicans in the state legislature have shared opposition to the Green Light NY bill, with many arguing that allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses would leave county clerks and employees at local Departments of Motor Vehicles unable to truly verify authenticity.  

“We must put the brakes on this unfair proposal which ignores the overwhelming opposition of our citizens to grant this privilege to illegal immigrants,” said New York State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) in a release. “We must red light the Green Light bill that simply opens up our system to fraud and places a burden on county clerks and DMV employees to verify the authenticity of foreign documents as proof of identification,” 

New York State Sen. Ken LaValle had similar sentiments. 

Patrick Young advocates for the Green Light NY bill to pass in the state legislature at the June 7 rally in Hauppauge. Photo by David Luces

“I was a member of a New York State Senate Task Force on Immigration and I have studied this issue at great length,” he said in a release. “I remain steadfast in my position that granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants is not good public policy, presents a clear threat to public safety and sends a wrong message to the law-abiding people I represent,”

Ivan Larios, of the New York Immigration Coalition, said there are misconceptions with this bill, one being that it will somehow allow undocumented immigrants to gain citizenship. 

“The bill will allow them to purchase a vehicle and get insurance,” he said. “And do everything by the books.”

Larios said in some cases many individuals decide to drive without a license and take the risk of being pulled over, though if they were to get into an accident it would leave them in a tough situation. 

“This is very important for families because it allows them to take their kids to school, go to work, do everyday stuff, said Larios. “And they would have to go through the same process [of getting a license] just like you and me have to go through.”

The bill has passed through the state assembly but is facing some opposition by Democrats, even in a Democrat-controlled state senate. The measure is expected to be voted on in the upcoming weeks. 

Young said every other Democratic in the state is supporting the bill and they have 25 co-sponsors as well as another six senators that would vote for the bill 

“Though none of them are from Long Island and that is horrific,” he said.

A man at the Huntington rally holds a sign in protest of President Donald Trump's immigration policies. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Why do we have to relearn lessons over and over, despite history telling us what works? Take immigration, the fiery topic du jour. Everyone holds a strong, increasingly entrenched, unmovable opinion about how to stem illegal immigration, protect America’s moral and historic immigrant commitment, preserve moral fiber and do right by those brought to the United States illegally as children. But what is the right answer?  

The right answer is a default to common sense. Go back just over 30 years. Former Republican President Ronald Reagan and former Democrat U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill found room for agreement, in their time, on this contentious topic. The former “Gang of Eight,” including late Sen. John McCain (R), got close with a bill that passed the Senate, lost in a Republican House. So why can’t we? 

America is — by definition and moral conviction — a country founded on immigration, with legal limits for various countries, practices, protocols and a complex fabric of legal obligations tied to those seeking asylum, refugee status, or wishing otherwise to enter and live in the United States, make a better life for themselves, and aspire to citizenship.  

Perhaps, oddly in a time of constant recrimination, instant outrage and emotional appeals for walls and sanctuary cities, my view is that there are still compromises available. They should be patiently sought, brought to the public for buy in, feedback and persuasion, then turned into law, just the way Reagan and O’Neill got to the “80 percent solution” more than three decades ago. 

The real question is not whether we should build cement or electronic barriers along parts of our southern border, whether we should return criminals to host countries, whether to protect young lives at our border and act humanely, whether to protect our sovereignty, territorial integrity, national security and the sanctity of citizenship. These are false choices. 

Of course, we should uphold standing American laws, create effective deterrence to keep illegal gangs, drug and human traffickers from entering the United States, while loving children as children and trying to preserve family units. We should be humane, even to those who may later be deported, because Americans are human by nature, history and character. We should all want to protect our established communities, as well as our national security, ideals and the value of citizenship. 

Oversimplifying this important discussion for political points — on either side of the aisle — is disingenuous and disserves average Americans. To fight a pitched battle, casting the other side as favoring illegality, inhumanity, lack of security or opposition to citizenship, are cheap shots.  

One has to ask, in all seriousness: Would Reagan or O’Neill cast this debate as so black and white, so simple, stark and impossible to solve? History suggests that they would not do what we are doing, turning on each other and attacking for political gain. They offered a better way forward, and we ought to take it.  

Here are basics on which all Americans — including those in Congress — should be able to agree: The nation’s borders are legal, real and should be protected. All lives are valuable, both American and non-American. The disparity between life in the United States and life in many countries south of the border is economically, politically and morally great. The status quo, with thousands crossing into the U.S. illegally, is unsustainable.  

But here is another reality: Hardworking adults and students who arrived in the United States as children — i.e., less than one-third of 1 percent of our population — did not commit acts of immoral or illegal behavior. Accordingly, they should not be punished as if they had done so.  

What does all this mean? It should be obvious. Congressional leaders and the White House should “beat swords into plowshares,” as Isaiah writes. The compromise to put this divisive issue behind us has four parts:  

1. A thoughtful, well-reasoned and empirically supported set of disincentives and barriers that create credible deterrence to illegal entry on our southwest border. 

2. A humane, moral and kind approach to those fleeing horrific human conditions to gain asylum or refugee status, including children and adults.

3. Accountable, targeted and effective foreign assistance programs aimed at restoring rule of law, basic stability and self-sufficiency to countries racked by the opposite across this hemisphere, Central America to Venezuela — our neglect in this area has been objectively astronomical. 

4. The foresight to understand that these three elements require robust funding, in order to prevent a run on America, for the stability, safety and opportunities we enjoy that many in this hemisphere do not. 

As a successful second-generation immigrant, proud American and hardworking businessman, I see opportunities in the present divide to find a new kind of interparty peace, to get to a new place in America where we all accept that compromise is better than pitched battles that lead nowhere.  

More to the point, I appreciate what America has meant to me, to my family, to my neighbors. I believe we have a moral duty to find solutions, not just shout and joust, staking out patches of ground to defend, when our real purpose is to defend what it means to be good Americans. 

Perry Gershon is a former Congressional candidate for New York’s 1st District and is running again for the same office. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Yale and a master’s in business administration from the University of California. He is also a national commentator on business, trade, policy and politics.

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

Another school year has begun. In the more than three decades that I have had the privilege of teaching college and graduate students, I have never had a class that I did not love and learn from. I continue to be amazed at their openness and enthusiasm about life.

Their love for others, their concern for the environment and their desire to leave the planet better than how they found it continues to inspire me to do my small part at making the world a better place.

Every fall semester I teach an honors sociology class at Suffolk County Community College in Selden, one of our best-kept secrets in higher education. Usually by my second class, I ask my students how many are registered to vote, and then take a count on how many are not registered to vote. It is always a mix on who is and who is not registered.

After the question about voter registration, I ask how many intend to vote. This semester I was shocked at how many indicated that they had no intention or desire to vote. The conversation that erupted after that statement was deeply troubling. Most of my students feel that their vote is meaningless and that their voice does not matter at all. They believe that our country is led by special interests and not by those elected to represent the people.

Even more disturbing was my question about the issues. What are they? Who do they affect? Some could articulate some of the national issues like gun safety and a broken immigration system. Very few could identify or articulate the local issues like health care, high taxes and affordable housing to name a few. 

What was really troubling is that this group of students who are among the brightest of the bright who may go on to Harvard or Yale, have no foundation on the core values of our nation and how it works.

We in education need to revisit this issue and reassess how we are preparing the next generation of American leaders. What are we doing in our junior high and in our high schools civics classes? Are we teaching our students to be critical thinkers and analytical writers? Are we discussing the important social issues of our times and helping them to understand what it means to be sociologically mindful?

They are the next generation of leaders that need to salvage our democracy and protect human rights for all. We need to work harder to prepare the next generation to become our future leaders. Our democracy demands it and our country desperately needs them.

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. speaks during an interviw at TBR News Media in Setauket July 20. Photo by Kyle Barr

Seven months into Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr.’s (D-Lake Grove) term, several issues have become top priorities. He sat for an exclusive interview at the TBR News Media office with the editorial staff July 20 to detail the road ahead.

Staffing issues within Sheriff’s office

The sheriff’s office is short-staffed specifically due to officers retiring or leaving for higher paying jobs elsewhere, according to Toulon.

“I’m almost signing one to two retirement letters a day,” he said. “We just lost two — one going to [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] police and one going to the New York City Police Academy. I’m expecting to lose two in the near future; more going to other law enforcement [jobs].”

The department is short on 76 mandated posts that the two county corrections facilities are supposed to have. This has led to an increase in overtime for existing corrections personnel. Toulon said he sees the low starting salary for Suffolk County corrections officers as the primary driver of the staff shortage. Those in the positions are paid $30,000 per year initially, reaching about $76,000 after 12 years. Starting salaries in Nassau County or New York City corrections are about $10,000 more.

“The people in our custody that have detainers are not good people. I wouldn’t want them on our streets – I wouldn’t care what their status is.”

— Errol Toulon Jr.

Toulon said 30 people will be graduating from the county academy Aug. 8 to fill some of the vacancies.

A pay raise would have to be approved by the Suffolk County Legislature, though Toulon said he supports it.

School Security

As the occurrences of school shootings seemingly increase nationally, especially after the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida, security has become a hot topic amongst school districts and communities. The sheriff’s office is working on the issue as well. Toulon said getting everybody on the same page when it comes to securing schools is a tough but essential job, which requires coordination between school security, police departments and the sheriff’s office.

“When you are going into these schools you frequently realize some of these schools have armed security, some have unarmed security, and some have security that are armed because they hired retired law enforcement, and it’s not publicized,” Toulon said.

School security officers obviously do not have standards as far as uniforms across county school districts. Further confusing local law enforcement, each school might have different protocols in engaging an active shooter, whether they will actively engage the shooter with a firearm or focus on getting the children to safety.

Toulon said he and his officers have gone into schools at the request of the districts to perform security assessments. So far 10 out of 69 school districts in Suffolk County have taken the Sheriff’s department up on the offer.

Toulon said an ideal setup might be having standardized training for all school districts and school security officers in the county not only so they would know what to do in a school fire, bomb or shooting scenario, but also because it would train them to interact with any local police that arrive on the scene.

The sheriff’s office plans to host a forum for Suffolk County school superintendents August 16 at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue to talk broadly about school security and to share ideas.

Dealing with gangs and immigration officials

Toulon said that while county jails only hold people charged with local crimes, they do work with the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency when it comes to some inmates.

“I’m almost signing one to two retirement letters a day.”

— Errol Toulon Jr.

“The sheriff’s office doesn’t profile people,” Toulon said. “If you blow a stop sign or a red light, we are going to pull you over. The people in our custody that have detainers are not good people. I wouldn’t want them on our streets – I wouldn’t care what their status is.”

Toulon stressed that the sheriff’s department does not participate on any ICE raids. He advised the immigrant community to know their Miranda Rights, that they do not have to communicate to police without a lawyer, and that anyone concerned about an arrest could contact the sheriff’s office.

Many people in local communities are concerned about activities perpetrated by the local incarnations of the MS-13 gang. Several high-profile gang murders were prosecuted in the past few years, including the 2017 murder of two young girls in Brentwood, complicating community-law enforcement relations and heating up a polarized, politically-based national discourse. Stories of abuses of power carried out by the federal agency, mostly in areas nearer to the southern border, have not been representative of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office’s dealings with ICE, Toulon said, adding that he would not tolerate inappropriate behavior from any uniformed officer within the facilities he oversees, be them staff under his purview or otherwise.

Toulon said comments made by President Donald Trump (R) on the matter have made his job tougher, especially when dealing with local immigrant communities.

“The tensions that I see in the immigrant community come from what they see going on in the rest of the country,” Toulon said. “The fact that our current president tweets about it and makes comments about a whole population – that is not fair, it makes my job a lot more difficult.”