Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar is a named defendant, along with the Town of Riverhead, in the lawsuit filed June 7 by the City of New York challenging executive orders seeking to block the relocation of asylum-seekers by the city to outside counties. Photo: Alek Lewis

Riverhead Town will now have to defend its controversial state of emergency in court.

New York City is suing Riverhead and 30 counties across the state, including Suffolk, asking a court to  invalidate  executive orders that “wall off their borders” to block the city from arranging housing for asylum-seekers in their jurisdictions.

The complaint filed yesterday in New York County Supreme Court says the orders violate state and federal laws, including those protecting civil and human rights under the United States Constitution.  

It details the events that led up to the first executive order, signed May 6 by Rockland County Executive Edwin Day May 6, after a city contractor identified one hotel in Rockland County that could accommodate “a small number” of asylum seekers. That hotel was one of five hotels in four upstate counties identified by the city as able and willing to help the city relocate asylum-seekers. 

New York City had struggled to find temporary housing for tens of thousands of asylum-seekers bused there between April 2022 and April 2023 by the State of Texas and the City of El Paso, the complaint states.  Anticipating a large influx following the May 11 expiration of the COVID-19 health emergency that required asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico, NYC Mayor Eric Adams on May 4 “emailed a letter addressed to ‘Mayors, County Executives and Municipal Leaders’ describing the City’s efforts to address the sudden influx of asylum-seekers and asking for their assistance,” according to the complaint.

The municipalities named as defendants — all are counties except for the Town of Riverhead — “followed Rockland County’s example and declared states of emergency and issued emergency orders, most of which were substantially similar to the Rockland Order in every relevant aspect.”

Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar declared  a state of emergency on May 16 and issued an emergency order prohibiting all businesses operating transient lodging and campgrounds in the town from housing migrants and/or asylum seekers, due to the “immediate danger of public emergency of hundreds, or potentially, thousands of persons being transported to the Town of Riverhead” from New York City, according to the order. 

Aguiar said in an interview the night she issued the order that she had received reports that “well over 1,000” migrants were about to be bused into town by New York City. Aguiar said she heard there were three locations in Riverhead that had agreed to house the migrants. She said she did not know where the locations were. During the interview, Aguiar made reference to “an advisory” she said was sent to “all the state-funded facilities, asking for them to house individuals that are transported to the city, and [saying] that he would support the funding and all the ancillary services that they need.”

It is not known whether the supervisor received the May 4 email from the NYC mayor asking for help. A Freedom of Information Law request filed by RiverheadLOCAL for correspondence between the supervisor’s office and officials of the City of New York was denied by the town.

Aguiar did not immediately return a call yesterday requesting comment for this article.

MORE COVERAGE: Hotel/motel operators in Riverhead deny contact with NYC about housing homeless migrants, as Aguiar’s state of emergency draws praise, scorn

Aguiar has since extended her executive order four times, most recently on Tuesday. Since she extended her order, it has been criticized by residents, the Latino advocacy group OLA of Eastern Long Island and the NYCLU

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone declared his own state of emergency on May 26 prohibiting any hotel, motel, multiple dwelling or shelter in the county from contracting with any external municipality to provide housing or accommodations for asylum-seekers without permission from the County of Suffolk. Unlike Aguiar’s order, Bellone’s came with the promise that the county would examine ways to house migrants from the city. Bellone’s office did not return a request for comment.

According to the complaint, the executive orders violate the Equal Protection Clause and the right to travel under the United States Constitution, the complaint states, and “impermissibly classify individuals based on their national origin and/or alienage status.”

In addition, the city argues,the executives lacked the legal power to issue the emergency orders under New York State Executive Law.  

“Respondents’ EOs were issued without any rational basis to believe that any kind of disaster, catastrophe or true emergency was taking place or about to take place in the relevant jurisdictions,” the complaint reads. “The prospect of a few hundred asylum seekers being located temporarily in a hotel willing to take them — with the City retaining fiscal responsibility, paying for lodging, and providing transportation, meals, and social services — cannot reasonably be described as a “public emergency,” much less a public emergency that imperils public safety,” it states.

“In the current statewide emergency and humanitarian crisis, every day counts and every bit matters,” the complaint reads. “The number of individuals who would be temporarily placed in any hotels in any particular Respondent’s jurisdiction is relatively small in the scheme of the crisis, and poses no cognizable harm to Respondents or their communities. But these modest steps can add up to significant strides in how the state and localities handle this crisis.”

Town Attorney Erik Howard said last week that the town is comfortable with defending its emergency order in court. The town’s order has a “limited, narrowly tailored scope,”  that will withstand judicial scrutiny, he said. “Because, I mean, at the end of the day, we are just enforcing our building codes, we’re enforcing our town code,” Howard said.

There has been a flurry of litigation surrounding the city’s search for accommodations for asylum seekers outside of its boundaries and the executive orders signed in the hope of blocking any relocations. Among the lawsuits are actions brought by Rockland County against NYC and a hotel operator, by the Town of Orangetown in Rockland County against a hotel operator, by Orange County against NYC and a hotel operator, by the Town of Newburgh in Orange County against a hotel operator, and separate suits by Dutchess and Onondaga counties and the Town of Colonie against NYC. 

The Suffolk County Legislature has authorized hiring special counsel to advise it on how to prevent NYC from relocating asylum-seekers here, but has not yet appointed an attorney or brought any legal action.

The New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of asylum-seekers sued Orange and Rockland counties in federal court, challenging the legality of their orders. The federal  judge presiding over that case on Tuesday issued a preliminary injunction preventing the the counties from enforcing the executive orders. 

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com