Residents criticized Supervisor Yvette Aguiar’s declaration of a state of emergency in an attempt to block the lodging of asylum-seekers in Riverhead Town as being without factual basis, and having the potential to fuel fear and hate of immigrants.
Residents, including members of the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, criticized the decision at the Town Board’s meeting last night, a day after Aguiar’s order was issued. Board members stood behind Aguiar’s decision, defending it as a preemptive measure to thwart a potential crisis.
There is little evidence to suggest that hotels and motels in Riverhead are expecting to host — or were even contacted by New York City to house — homeless asylum seekers. Hotels and motels reached by RiverheadLOCAL yesterday said they had not been contacted by New York City officials. One motel that houses homeless people through the Suffolk County Department of Social Services did not return a call yesterday, and Community Housing Innovations of White Plains, which operates homeless shelters could not be reached.
“There’s really no hard evidence to support the need for such a drastic action,” said Angela DeVito of South Jamesport, the Democratic party’s candidate for town supervisor. “I’d like to know from you as members of the board — and you’ve been told that by this town supervisor, she has been in consultation with you on this — where is the verifiable information about this imminent threat to the Town of Riverhead?”
“I’m not sure that there is verifiable information that says they are absolutely coming to Riverhead,” Council Member Tim Hubbard said in response to DeVito’s question. “This move was a proactive move instead of waiting for it to happen and then standing there trying to figure it out. We have been proactive, and we do not want this to happen in our town. We have no room in our infrastructure.”
Riverhead police chief: Rumors, no credible information about NYC busing migrants here
Aguiar said her emergency order was made due to the “immediate danger of public emergency of hundreds, or potentially, thousands of persons being transported to the Town of Riverhead.”
In a phone interview Tuesday night, Aguiar cited “numerous reports” of New York City arranging transportation of undocumented immigrants to hotels and other transient lodging facilities in the town, although Aguiar did not cite the source of the reports she said motivated her action. She could also not name the three facilities in the town she said had agreed to house migrants. Aguiar also said she’d been told about comments made by right-wing talk-radio host Curtis Sliwa, who said landowners in Riverhead had agreed to house migrants.
In an interview with Newsday TV yesterday, Aguiar said, “There was information received from law enforcement that Riverhead was targeted for receiving some buses of these individuals and I immediately issued the order.”
Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said today Riverhead Police did not provide any information to the supervisor about buses of asylum-seekers. He said he had also heard rumors about it in the community, but had “no credible knowledge.” He was unaware Sliwa was making statements to that effect on his radio show, he said.
Hubbard said in an interview yesterday the town’s emergency order was “based off of” Sliwa’s statements.
“The whole problem begins at the federal level,” Hubbard said at last night’s meeting. “People come and cross the border — we have no idea who these people are, what their backgrounds are, what their medical conditions are — no idea whatsoever.”
The emergency was put in place to stop businesses who have been solicited by New York City Mayor Eric Adams to house migrants, he said.
DeVito said that is no reason to put the town on what she called a “lockdown.” The state of emergency generates hate and fear, she said.
“The reaction in this town, once again, as we felt in 2019, was an immense amount of hate messages… an extreme amount of fear,” DeVito said. “And for what? For political gain?”
Cindy Clifford of Riverhead, co-chair of the Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force and president of the Heart of Riverhead Civic Association, said people are being “offensive” and “hateful” on social media in response to the emergency declaration. She said more education is needed for community members “so they wouldn’t just jump to this assumption that we’re opening the doors, or trying to barrier the doors, to a wave of criminals — 1,000s and 1,000s of people who are going to stampede Riverhead and ruin our lives.”
“Are you going to stand there and indicate that they’re not?” Hubbard said in response.
“I’m gonna stand here and indicate that I think that’s a real biased idea,” Clifford said.
“Do you think some of these people coming across [the border] may not be the best characters?” Hubbard asked.
“I think some of the people that are already here may not be the best characters,” Clifford said to applause.
Lisa Votino of Wading River, who has worked helping migrants at the southern border and has herself sponsored an asylum seeker, said claims from board members about not knowing who asylum seekers are is “gaslighting.”
“We know exactly who these people are. Most asylum seekers have sponsors. Right now. They’re caught in a federal mess,” she said.
“When you do things like this without proof, without statistics, with riling people up, you’re causing a situation on the ground where somebody couldn’t legitimately be hurt — much more likely than an asylum seeker coming here and hurting somebody else,” Votino said.
She said that while board members welcomed refugees that came to the town from Ukraine to escape war, they are not treating asylum seekers from the southern border — who are also refugees — the same way. She said the order would cause “hysteria.”
“I would really urge you to rescind this,” Votino said. “Rescind this [and] make a statement that everybody is welcome. Or, you know what, take down the Ukrainian flag and say nobody is welcome. One or the other.”
“You can’t say this group is OK, but this group is bad and wrong,” Votino said. “They’re both in really terrible situations. They both have had wars going on in their country. They both have their women and their children being raped in their countries. These are all things that happen.”
Ellen Hoil of Riverhead simply called the emergency declaration “a racist move” that will cause “hate and hysteria” and has the potential to get someone hurt.
Hubbard said Hoil should be “ashamed” of making the comment, which he said creates “a fearmonger attitude.”
Speakers said that by issuing the emergency declaration, the town government has made a federal problem specific to Riverhead.
Town Attorney Erik Howard said during the open public comment portion of the meeting that the speakers made a lot of “generalizations” and misconstrued the “limited scope” of the executive order.
“It is intended to say facilities that have a defined use by our building department continue to be used for those purposes, not for the purposes of long-term housing solutions for migrants or asylum-seekers that are being exported from New York City,” Howard said. “That’s all it says. It doesn’t say anything about the quality of person they are…”
Minerva Perez, the executive director of the Latino advocacy organization OLA of Eastern Long Island, said in a statement that the organization is “concerned with both the possible misuse of the law for political gain by Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar and possible discrimination based on people’s country of origin and on their status as migrants and/or asylum seekers.”
“Actions like that of the supervisor serve to fan the flames of hate, anger, discrimination, and misinformation,” Perez said. “OLA urges East End political leaders to adopt a humane, nondiscriminatory approach toward asylum seekers and migrants in our communities.”
Aguiar was absent from the Town Board meeting room and did not cast a vote last night. She said she was on a pre-planned trip and gave a statement through Zoom at the start of the meeting about the emergency declaration. Housing what she claimed would be over 1,000 asylum seekers would be an “unfathomable” strain on the town’s emergency services and the school district, she said.
“For many years, Riverhead has done more than our share in comparison to neighboring municipalities when it comes to having the homeless, providing services to those in need and to develop affordable housing,” Aguiar said. “This Town Board knows that Riverhead taxpayers simply cannot be at the cost of solving this issue at a local level.”
The problem is a result of the failure of the federal government to address the issue of immigration, Aguiar said.
She also read a statement from the Suffolk County Supervisors Association that called on the federal government to fix the immigration system and the placement of asylum seekers throughout the country. In a press release issued after the meeting, Aguiar framed the statement as praise for her emergency declaration; other supervisors said that isn’t the case.
– Denise Civiletti contributed reporting
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