Roanoke Avenue Elementary School principal Tom Payton welcomes children on the first day of school in 2014. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Rumors spreading in the community about the impending arrival of “hundreds” of unaccompanied children in Riverhead have no basis in fact, according to school and town officials.

“We are aware that public comments have been made regarding an influx of students in the school district related to the Guatemalan Consulate. We have not received any independent information on this topic, and we have not been approached as part of any discussion,” Riverhead school board president Laurie Downs said at the end of the meeting.

“We have not been approached at all and have no knowledge of any influx of students,” Interim Superintendent of Schools Christine Tona said today.

A Guatemalan Consulate office is preparing to open on East Main Street in Riverhead. See prior story. Its sign outside the office complex may be the source of rumors that unaccompanied migrant children who have crossed the southern U.S. border will be arriving in the Riverhead area — fueling other rumors about the Riverhead school district budget, which is up for a vote next week.

The consulate and its rumored implications have been a topic of discussion on social media and on local radio station WRIV, where attorney Ron Hariri of Aquebogue is airing a paid advertisement about the issue, urging Riverhead voters to reject the school budget and vote Supervisor Yvette Aguiar out of office in November.

In the ad, Hariri blames the supervisor and town police for doing “nothing to stop immigrants from taking over Riverhead,” resulting, he says, in a school district that is “60% Latino” and a Guatemalan Consulate opening downtown.

“The school board wants a $160 million new budget we think is designed to accommodate hundreds of new immigrants to be dumped in Riverhead,” he says in the ad.

“Tell Señora Aguiar and the misfits on the school board they work for us, not Guatemala. Say adios to Aguiar in November and no on the school bond,” Hariri concludes, referring to the May 18 school budget vote — there is no school bond proposition on the ballot.

Reached for comment yesterday, Hariri could not cite a specific source for his statement about “hundreds of new immigrants” soon to be “dumped in Riverhead.”

“It’s coming from all over the place,” he said. “And the latest is some official at the schools suggested that, you know, they’ve they’ve heard it too… We don’t have any specific information. But we’ve heard it from a number of different sources,” Hariri said.

“But I mean, look, there’s thousands of unaccompanied minors at the border. And you opened up a consulate in Riverhead. I mean, you can see the writing on the wall, I think,” he said.

The comments by Hariri, a frequent antagonist of the Riverhead supervisor during town board meetings, did not seem to surprise the supervisor, who dismissed them as a political attack — albeit an attack that is “well down the line on human rights,” she said, declining to elaborate. “I’m just going to leave it there,” she said.

‘Outlandish claims and misinformation’

“Unfortunately, we have a few oppositional political operatives here in Riverhead who have decided to use the consulate’s opening to try and affect the upcoming Riverhead school budget vote next week and my re-election in November,” Aguiar said today.

“I will not give any further validity, credence or importance to those individuals who are funneling these types of rumors in our community. Riverhead Town most certainly deserves better,” Aguiar said.

The chairperson of the Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force agreed.

“News of the Guatemalan consulate’s satellite office in Riverhead has opened the door to a wave of outlandish claims and misinformation that is attempting to fuel baseless fears,” said ABTF chairperson Cindy Clifford. “Dividing our community accomplishes nothing but hurts us all.”

Sr. Margaret Smyth, director of North Fork Spanish Apostolate, said the role of a consulate has nothing to do with helping foreign nationals settle in the United States.

“They don’t have anything to do with schools or housing here, or anything like that,” Smyth said. “That’s an American situation. They have nothing to do with it at all.”

Consulate has ‘nothing to do with’ schools or housing

In a statement, Consul Ana Elena Mercedes Flores Chavarria said the role of the Guatemalan Consulate in Riverhead is “to look after the interests of the State of Guatemala and Guatemalans already living in the United States.”

Consular offices issue passports to citizens of their countries and consular IDs, help people living abroad obtain birth certificates from their home country, or sell land there, and the office will help people register marriages, births and deaths in the U.S. with officials in their home countries.

The office will also “conduct cultural activities with the Guatemalan community and promote friendly, commercial, economic, cultural and other relationships that are of interest to the community in which the Consulate is located,” Flores said.

Smyth said any services having to do with newly arrived migrants, such as assistance finding housing or assistance with registering children in schools, are provided only by U.S.-based agencies — including the one Smith has helmed for more than two decades.

Smyth has assisted numerous sponsors of unaccompanied migrant children over the years and continues to do so when the situation presents itself. But nearly all of her office’s work has always been assisting residents already living here.

Unaccompanied children do not arrive in large batches, she said, pointing to the long bureaucratic processes involved.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is an office of the Administration for Children & Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, handles the transition of refugees into U.S. communities, according to the agency’s website. There are specific and lengthy protocols for unaccompanied minors, detailed in the publication “Children Entering the United States Unaccompanied.”

Every effort is made to place all children with family members already living in the U.S., according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement document. Sometimes they are placed in foster care.

It’s rare that children are not placed with resident family members, Smyth said.

Since 2014, an average of 895 unaccompanied children placed in Suffolk annually

The Office of Refugee Resettlement publishes data on the placement of unaccompanied children nationwide, broken down by state and county. According to the data, there were an average of 895 unaccompanied children placed in Suffolk County annually in the six federal fiscal years from 2013-2014 through 2019-2020. (The fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.) There have been 277 unaccompanied children placed in Suffolk County during the current fiscal year as of March 31.

Smyth said the number of children her office has helped with school registration each year is “not high” — maybe 20 children at most, she said. Most are already living in the district. And of the newcomers she assists, very few of them have been unaccompanied children.

In 2014, the district did see an influx of migrant children in the community. Between July 1 and Sept. 1, there were 61 unaccompanied children registered by the district, according to data provided by the district to RiverheadLOCAL later that month.

Smyth said she thought that year was the outlier among the last several in Riverhead.

There’s no way of knowing what will happen in the future but it will depend upon the residency of sponsors and the federal bureaucracy that places children. It will have nothing to do with the presence of a consulate in the community, Smyth said.

Lawyer claims school officials conspire to keep ‘dumping of immigrants’ quiet

Hariri yesterday claimed “present and prior school officials have told us confidentially” that the “so-called ‘dumping’ of immigrants on Long Island is being “kept quiet intentionally because of the uproar it would create.”

School officials adamantly deny that claim — and they stress that Hariri’s statements about the school budget increase being linked to preparation for a massive “influx” of children is baseless.

The $13.8 million increase in spending this year is fully funded by an increase in state aid provided by the state legislature. State lawmakers have described it as a partial restoration of state aid cuts made in the aftermath of the economic meltdown of 2008.

“For years, Riverhead did not receive its fair share of state aid. For 2021-2022, New York State has increased Riverhead’s state aid by almost $14 million,” Tona said. “This increase allowed the board of education to adopt a school budget of approximately $159 million dollars, which is an increase of $13.8 million dollars,” she said.

“None of these increases will come from the taxpayers, as the board of education has adopted a budget with a 0% increase to the tax levy,” Tona said.

“These funds will be used to restore items cut due to contingency and will also allow for the expansion of additional programs and supports for students,” which are especially needed because of the pandemic, the interim superintendent said.

‘I’m tired of people talking of us and not with us.’

Ananias Canel, a 32-year-old Riverhead resident, who came here as an unaccompanied minor as a teen, said it’s “disheartening” that certain people always have “something negative to say,” painting an entire community with a broad brush, applying negative stereotypes.

Since his arrival by himself in a foreign land, Canel has gotten an education, learned a trade, obtained his legal documents and works as a carpenter. The former refugee said he is pursuing the American Dream, like every other immigrant to arrive on American shores.

“But some people aren’t interested in knowing who we are as individuals,” Canel lamented.

“It’s infuriating to hear the same things over and over. For example, they say that Hispanics don’t pay taxes. Well guess what? We do — and to say we don’t is a lie,” he said. “If we don’t have a legal status, we will pay taxes through a tax ID. Every time we buy something we pay sales tax. When we pay rent, our rent has the taxes the landlord has to pay in property taxes. I have been paying taxes since I first started working here,” Canel said.

“Many immigrants are legal residents and citizens. Many immigrants are business owners or own their own homes in Riverhead,” he said.

“I’m tired of people talking of us and not with us.”

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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.