Rep. Lee Zeldin, left, and House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte at a roundtable discussion Sept. 17 at Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Stopping MS-13 from further infiltration in Suffolk County and prosecuting gang-related crime was the focus of a roundtable discussion convened by Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte at Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead this morning.

Law enforcement officials from across the county joined the two congressmen to discuss what their agencies are doing to prevent the spread of MS-13 and combat violent crimes, drug trafficking and human trafficking. The officials spoke of the need for continuing to improve coordination among federal, state, county and local law enforcement agencies.

They stressed the need for more federal funding to finance their efforts.

Last year Suffolk County received $500,000 from the Department of Justice through the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative to reduce gun- and gang-related violence in high crime areas, Zeldin said. Suffolk County Police Chief of Department Stuart Cameron said more grants like that are needed.

Law enforcement is focused on preventing gang recruitment, officials said today. Gangs like MS-13 prey on youth — even children. It’s important to continue to emphasize police presence in public schools to help deter MS-13 recruitment, officials agree.

“The influx of UACs [“unaccompanied alien children”] has provided fertile recruiting opportunities for brutal transnational gangs like MS-13,” Zeldin said.

The police brass at the meeting advocated continuing an increased police presence in schools to prevent gang recruitment.

Both Goodlatte and Zeldin also advocated tougher immigration laws. Zeldin said he sponsored a bill passed by the House of Representatives that would “remove citizenship for any naturalized citizen tied to a criminal gang who commits a gang-related activity.”

“We hope the Senate will move the bill soon so we can have the president sign it into law,” Goodlatte said.

“Under current law a criminal alien is not deportable unless they have been convicted of an independent crime,” Goodlatte said. “We have to wait for a known criminal alien gang member to be convicted of a crime in order to deport.”

Goodlatte, who authored a hard-line immigration bill rejected by the House in June, blamed what he called the “reckless policies” of past administrations for an increase in “criminal alien gangs,” saying that past policies favored undocumented immigrants, even gang members, over the security of American citizens.

Stepped-up enforcement activity by the Trump administration has resulted in hundreds of arrests in the New York City-Long Island region, Zeldin said.

Operation Matador, a joint law enforcement effort launched in May 2017, resulted in nearly 800 arrests in the N.Y. area, said Angel Melendez, ICE Homeland Security Investigations special agent in charge of the N.Y. area of responsibility — which takes in Long Island, New York City’s five boroughs and the seven counties north of NYC. Of those 793 arrests, 344 were MS-13 gang members — and most of the MS-13 arrests were on Long Island, he said.

Stepped-up enforcement activities have also stoked fear in the immigrant community, with many undocumented immigrants worried about being swept up in enforcement actions targeting others and some people being detained for deportation on minor criminal convictions from several years ago. Arrests and deportations of residents who have no gang affiliation or serious criminal records have sparked outcry among immigrant advocates — and criticism of the hard-line policies advanced by the Trump administration.

Zeldin did not invite immigrant advocate groups to participate in today’s roundtable. They were angered about being excluded, arguing that a comprehensive strategy to combat MS-13 and protect Latino youth from being targeted for recruitment must include the Latino community. See prior story.

Zeldin said the roundtable today was intended to give law enforcement officials the opportunity to speak with Goodlatte and each other.

“The purpose is to have a productive, substantive conversation,” Zeldin said. “There were some people who found out about the meeting and wanted to attend in order to disrupt,” he said.

A group of about 60 people gathered outside the building where the invitation-only roundtable took place. Aware that the meeting was not open to the public, many came bearing placards and banners protesting current immigration and enforcement policies. A smaller group sought to enter the meeting room but were turned away by campus security. (See separate story.)

Southampton Town Councilman John Bouvier attended the meeting even though he and other local officials were also not invited. Bouvier said he did not think the discussion, which he said was largely self-congratulatory, accomplished very much.

The purpose of the meeting “seemed very political in nature,” Bouvier, a Democrat, said afterward.

Excluding advocate groups based on the belief that their purpose in attending such a meeting would be to disrupt it is “very presumptuous,” Bouvier said. “I’m outraged by [Zeldin’s] statement,” he said. “Part of your job as a public official is to be open-minded and listen to all sides, all stakeholders. It’s not appropriate to write off basically a whole group of your constituency simply because they are on one side of an issue that you don’t happen to be on.”

The exclusion of immigrant advocates drew criticism from other quarters too.

“By shutting out the voices of immigrant advocates, the congressman’s office demonstrated just how little respect they have for community input and dialogue,” said Irma Solis, director of the Suffolk chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Without immigrant perspectives this so-called roundtable was nothing more than a feedback loop of anti-immigrant sentiment.”

Zeldin’s challenger in the NY-01 election, Democrat Perry Gershon of East Hampton issued a statement questioning Zeldin’s motives for the meeting.

“Lee Zeldin’s taxpayer-funded, closed-door ‘immigration roundtable’ is no more than a charade,” Gershon said. “It was designed by his campaign for Lee to look tough on immigration — without the inconvenience of including advocates for immigrant communities.”

Zeldin said he invited the Long Island Farm Bureau to participate in the roundtable knowing they “advocate very effectively for the immigrant workforce” including “some people who may not even be here in lawful status right now.”

Zeldin said the federal government must “address a legal path for local businesses to employ temporary workers in order to maintain a reliable workforce. The current temporary worker program with great uncertainty imposes excessive costs to the farmers and other business owners requriing employers to re-apply annually in an expensive and time-consuming process,” he said.

“We need a reliable and steady workforce,” L.I. Farm Bureau administrative director Rob Carpenter told the group. He asked the congressmen to help with laws that will make that possible. Farms could not function without farm workers.

Maintaining a reliable food supply is a matter of homeland security, Carpenter said. “Without our farms, where would our food come from?”

“Farm workers on our farms are good, honest people who care about the farm and work hard. They want to provide for their families just like anyone else,” Carpenter said. “In some instances, since the families are many miles away, workers want to come here, work hard and return home. Many work for our farmers for many years.”

“All are part of the community,” Carpenter said. “We ask for your help in taking care of the people that take care of us.”

Goodlatte said he hopes his legislation, the “Ag & Legal Workforce Act,” which he said will make it easier for employers to obtain three-year guest worker visas for foreign nationals, will pass by the end of the year.

Law enforcement officials attending the roundtable included representatives of ICE Homeland Securities Investigations, Suffolk County Police Department, N.Y. State Police, Riverhead Town Police, Southampton Town Police, Southold Town Police, Shelter Island Town Police, several East End village police departments and the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office. The district attorney and Suffolk County sheriff did not attend.

Both Riverhead and Southampton Town police chiefs said MS-13 is not a huge problem in their towns. But both said they have seen indications that MS-13 is present.

“We’re paying close attention,” Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said. “There is a lot of transience in the community and it’s easy for gang members to migrate from one area of the county to another.” Citing the existing gang task force, Hegermiller said law enforcement agencies in Suffolk work closely together. “It’s important to keep everyone on the same page.”

Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki also said his department has seen signs of the presence of MS-13 “on a relatively small scale.” He echoed what Hegermiller said about the importance of sharing information across agencies.

“It allows us to apply resources where we know problems will arise,” Skrynecki said.

East End law enforcement officials say MS-13 seems to be a larger problem in western Suffolk.

The murder of four Latino youths, whose bodies were found in the woods adjacent to a municipal park in Central Islip, drew national attention. Their murders were gang-style executions attributed to MS-13. Three men and a teen were arrested and charged in the slayings. The teen, who was charged as an adult, pleaded guilty last month in federal district court.

The family of one of the victims, Justin Llivicura, 16, of East Patchogue, was invited to the roundtable. Speaking to the group with the assistance of a bilingual aide to the congressman who acted as translator, the victim’s mother, through tears, thanked the authorities for their work.

“I came to this country at 19 years old. I made my family here,” she said. “My son was a humble boy and he never had a problem with anyone, and it hurts me a lot to have lost my son,” she said.

“Thank you very much for remembering the name of my son.”

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.