About 60 people gathered on the lawn outside the Montaukett building on the eastern campus of Suffolk County Community College Monday to protest a meeting on immigration issues hosted by Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte.
Police brass, including Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, SCPD chief of department and chief of detectives and the police chiefs of East End departments, as well as top ICE investigators in this region, participated in a discussion focused on prosecuting gang-related crimes, MS-13, drug and human trafficking and the need for increased funding and agency coordination. (See separate story.)
The Llivicura family, whose son Justin was one of four young Latinos murdered by MS-13 in Central Islip last year, the Long Island Farm Bureau and the group Concerned Citizens of Hampton Bays were also invited to the roundtable.
Local elected officials were not invited. Nor were immigrant advocacy groups, who came together for a protest outside the building where the meeting took place. They were joined by immigrants, SCCC professors and students and private citizens from across the county in a peaceful demonstration that lasted about two hours.
People representing Long Island Jobs with Justice, SEPA Mujer, OLA of Eastern Long Island, Centro Corazón de María, Neighbors In Support of Immigrants, Rural Migrant Ministry and a dozen other groups, spoke during the protest in an impromptu forum, to voice their objections and ire at the congressman not having any immigrant community representatives or advocates at the roundtable on immigration — as well as Zeldin’s stance on these issues.
“Not a single group that serves immigrants was invited. The only people invited were the media, which makes this a clear campaign stunt,” Long Island Jobs with Justice community outreach coordinator and protest organizer Richard Koubek said.
Chants of “This is America over here,” “Roundtable means all sides,” and “Justice for all,” rang out periodically during the protest.
Protesters questioned the meeting’s motivations and said that it focuses exclusively on crimes committed by immigrants, “adding to Trumps’ efforts to criminalize all immigrants.”
They pointed to a study from the Cato Institute, a conservative think-tank, that states that the arrest rate for undocumented immigrants was 40 percent below that of native-born Americans and the arrest rate for all immigrants and documented immigrants was 65 percent and 81 percent below that of native-born Americans, respectively.
Protesters—many carrying signs, pictures and banners— also expressed their anger at the college administration, who gave the okay to the roundtable, arguing the meeting was more like a campaign event and it should not have been approved since they said the college is “public property paid by tax payer money.”
“Why isn’t everybody represented in that room? I call BS,” SCCC student Joseph Vanderwaag said. “Why in our college? We house the Center for Social Justice and Human Understanding, our students are getting active, we fight for people’s rights, immigrant rights. This out here is what America looks like.”
Protesters were also expressing concern about Concerned Citizens of Hampton Bays, an organization they consider an anti-immigrant group.
The group’s main platform alleges that not having enough Southampton Town code enforcement on long-term residential use of the hamlet’s motels and hotels is causing an increase in property taxes and an increase in the student enrollment of that school district — something that is disputed by the Town of Southampton and immigrant advocates.
SCCC vice president for student affairs Christopher Adams said that many college officials had only found out about the event Sunday evening, and that their policy states that government officials can use their facilities as long as they fill an application and pay the fees associated, which he said Zeldin’s team did.
Immigrant advocates also said that, even though Zeldin is an elected representative of all people in his district, he is picking and choosing who to represent. They said they see this roundtable as a political strategy from Zeldin to stoke his base and further fuel anti-immigrant sentiment.
“The amount of hateful rhetoric that is happening on the national and local level, it’s just like the perfect storm that led to [Ecuadorean immigrant] Marcelo Lucero’s murder [10 years ago by seven white teenagers,]” community organizer Lisa Votino-Tarrant said.
Protesters also said that Zeldin is choosing to conflate immigration policy with gangs, human trafficking and other topics, as a way to align himself with President Donald Trump’s rhetoric.
“If this were a true, clear and transparent conversation about what we can do regarding these important issues, Zeldin would have invited organizations and people who have worked for years to deal with these matters and the vulnerable communities that are most affected by them,” SEPA Mujer executive director Martha Maffei said.
Zeldin told RiverheadLOCAL in an interview after the meeting some groups wanted to be in the meeting just to disrupt it. Members of groups protesting outside said they” only wanted a seat at the table.”
Town of Southampton Councilman John Bouvier echoed many protestors after the meeting in regards to the presence of the parents of Justin Llivicura.
He said that this was a family in deep grief and that it was not appropriate to politicize their pain.
“Immigrants are usually one the main targets of gang violence, human trafficking, and other issues discussed at the roundtable, and the community is traumatized and in fear, something that Zeldin is contributing to by not including them in the conversation or just using their pain,” OLA of Eastern Long Island executive director Minerva Perez said.
Zeldin’s communications director Katie Vincentz said in an email Monday evening that “many of the protesters outside were those that always protest Congressman Zeldin on everything and anything, including some who are even paid to do so.”
When asked to clarify that assessment, Vincentz pointed to Shoshana Hershkowitz, a life-long educator who started working part-time six months ago as a field organizer for Taking Action for Suffolk County.
In her remarks at the protest Monday Hershkowitz disclosed she worked for TASC, which is considered a SuperPAC by the Federal Election Commission, and said she was not there on their behalf.
“There are no secrets. If you look at my record you will see I have been protesting this congressman’s actions well before six months ago,” she said in an interview with RiverheadLOCAL. “Nobody working for TASC was at that protest and I did not organize that protest, Long Island Jobs with Justice did.”
“If they are going to try to delegitimize 70 people showing up because they have me working for TASC it says more about them than about me,” adding that “they are trying to divert from the real story, which is that they held a meeting that is not acceptable to the public and a lot of people are angry about it.”