Immigrants march in Los Angeles in 2006 protesting immigration reform. Photo: Visions of America

In the wake of a fatal shooting involving an undocumented immigrant last week in San Francisco, some town officials say Riverhead’s own policies regarding undocumented immigrants are too similar to policies governing so-called “sanctuary cities,” and believe they should be made stricter.

Although Riverhead has never officially declared itself a sanctuary city, its internal policies – like those in Suffolk and Nassau police departments – are structured to achieve the same effect.

Riverhead police officers don’t go out of their way to find out if someone is undocumented, says Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller, and even if police have reason to believe that they are, the town won’t detain them, even at the request of a federal agency, without a court-issued warrant.

But several town board members feel that Riverhead’s policies are too similar to the laws in San Francisco that kept an undocumented immigrant from being deported before he allegedly killed a woman last Wednesday.

“How can you wait for a warrant when he’s arraigned, and in a week he may be gone?” said Councilman John Dunleavy. “If the federal government says this guy’s supposed to be deported, we should hold them and get them out of the country.”

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, who is also a Republican candidate for town supervisor, agreed. “If the federal government wants to interview them, we should hold them and interview them,” Giglio said. “We can’t just keep releasing criminals out onto the street. This could be our next Freedom Tower attack.”

Another councilman thinks the town should take it a step further, and that police should actively detain and report undocumented immigrants to federal agencies.

“If someone is pulled over for a traffic violation, and the officer finds out he’s illegal, that’s a crime,” Councilman George Gabrielsen said. “Whether it’s a federal crime or a local crime, it’s still a crime. He’s illegal. We should be detaining as many as we can hold.”

But local jails are already overcrowded, says Councilman James Wooten, who is also a retired police officer. He pointed out that Riverhead’s police force isn’t equipped to handle the volume of people here undocumented.

“We already have a lot of crime to deal with,” Wooten said. “To go after people who are just being here, in and by itself, in this community undocumented – that’s just such a waste of resources.

“What are we supposed to do with them?” he added. “Where are we going to put these people?”

Supervisor Sean Walter sees it as a civil rights issue. “We’re not in the business of detaining people without a warrant or probable cause,” Walter said. “If the federal government wants to enforce immigration law, they have to follow the law and get a warrant. If they want to violate those civil rights, the Town of Riverhead is not going to follow suit and violate those civil rights as well.”

But Giglio, Dunleavy and Gabrielsen disagree. All three said they planned to discuss the issue with the other town board members and consider an official policy on the matter. “We live in a very liberal state,” Dunleavy said. “But we have our own police department. We should be able to do what we want to do.”

Sanctuary city policies are meant to separate low-level offenders from violent criminals, so that an undocumented immigrant who is stopped for a traffic violation does not have to fear the risk of deportation. Such policies are also an attempt to build trust between immigrant communities and police departments, so that immigrants without documentation are not afraid to report crimes to the police.

But sanctuary city policies have come under fire after Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant who has been deported five times, allegedly shot and killed a woman in San Francisco last week. The shooting came three months after U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had asked San Francisco to detain Lopez-Sanchez.

San Francisco, which passed a “Due Process For All” ordinance in 2013, will only respond to federal agencies’ requests to detain someone if there is a court-issued warrant. ICE did not provide a warrant, so Lopez-Sanchez was freed.

Locally, sanctuary city policies are not unusual. More than two dozen county police departments in New York State, including Suffolk, Nassau and the five New York City boroughs, don’t detain immigrants without a warrant. Connecticut decided last December to enact such a policy statewide.

“You only lock up somebody who’s done something criminal,” said Sister Margaret Smyth, an immigration advocate from the North Fork Spanish Apostolate. “And most people aren’t criminals.”

Smyth, who works closely with the local immigrant population, says these policies give peace of mind to immigrants who live in constant fear of deportation.

“The biggest obstacle [for undocumented immigrants] has to be living in the shadows,” she said. “There’s no immigration process that takes a look at people and tries to help get them documented. There is no process. We live with a broken immigration system.”

Most undocumented immigrants, Smyth added, are fleeing violence and extreme poverty from their home countries.

She recounted a recent trip to Honduras, where army trucks with soldiers carrying Uzi machine guns were parked “on every corner.” Children with working parents were growing up in houses made of sticks, she said, without access to running water, fresh food or healthcare. Schools are expensive and can be located 15 or 20 miles away from home, and many kids end up getting recruited into gangs instead.

“You’re going to do what you can to better your child’s life,” Smyth said. “There isn’t a person in the world that doesn’t want to fight to have their children get the best they can get. If you’re living with lack of food, lack of healthcare, in constant violence, you’re going to do whatever you can to give your children a good life. You just want to make sure your children are protected, that they are educated, that they can live until an old age. Anyone else would do the same.”

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