Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar has extended her executive order declaring a state of emergency in response to a reported threat of NYC imminently relocating asylum seekers to Riverhead. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, faced with a lawsuit from New York City seeking to invalidate the Riverhead’s controversial state of emergency barring asylum-seekers from being housed in hotels and motels in Riverhead, has continued to extend her executive orders.

The latest extension, her eighth since the executive order was issued May 16, has some harsh words to say about the lawsuit and New York City, continuing the pattern of partisan rhetoric that has permeated the migrant crisis nationally and influenced Aguiar’s original decision to impose the executive order.

The new executive order states that Aguiar “find that the litigation commenced by the City of New York further demonstrates the City’s wanton disregard for the territorial and jurisdictional sovereignty of the Town of Riverhead and other similarly situated jurisdictions and municipalities.” The order continues to say the litigation is a “clear, immediate and illegal attempt to undermine the Executive authority and powers vested in the Office of Supervisor of the Town of Riverhead and is specifically designed to impede or otherwise diminish my obligation to protect health, safety and welfare of the citizens of the Town of Riverhead.”

MORE COVERAGE: NYC hauls Riverhead Town and 30 counties into court for attempting to ‘close their borders’ to asylum-seekers

The lawsuit “demonstrates an intent to subvert and derogate the zoning and land use ordinances duly adopted and implemented by the Town of Riverhead and that such intent and machinations continue a gross malicious intrusion upon the municipal home rule authority guaranteed by the New York State Constitution…,” the executive order says.

On June 7, New York City and Acting Social Services Commissioner Molly Wasow Park filed a lawsuit against 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 by the city argues the orders violate the Equal Protection Clause and the right to travel under the United States Constitution 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, due to their being no “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.”

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. The city’s ability to temporarily place asylum-seekers in hotels around the state is “relatively small in the scheme of the crisis, and poses no cognizable harm to Respondents or their communities.”

Town officials are gearing up to defend against New York City’s lawsuit. Last week, the Town Board voted unanimously to ratify a retainer agreement with the Mineola-based law firm Lynne, Gartner, Dunne & Frigenti to act as the town’s special counsel in the litigation against New York City. A partner at the firm, Tiffany Frigenti, will act as lead attorney on the case and be paid a “discounted” rate of $350 an hour, according to the retainer agreement.

Town Attorney Erik Howard said before the New York City lawsuit was filed that the town feels comfortable defending the executive order’s legality. 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.

Aguiar’s language in Monday’s executive order continues a trend of partisan language that places the blame of the migrant crisis on mismanagement by the federal government and New York City. She has used such language in public comments defending the executive order’s validity in both public meetings and to media organizations.

In a May 18 interview on Fox News Tonight, Aguiar attacked New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ migrant housing policies. She did not correct the anchor when his questions assumed Adams had bused asylum-seekers to Riverhead or when he assumed those asylum-seekers had displaced homeless persons living in Riverhead motels. When the anchor made reference to the mayor “shipping illegal immigrants to Riverhead,” as if that had already happened, Aguiar responded: “That is a decision that he made that went bad. Really bad,” Aguiar said.

After Aguiar referenced homeless people being displaced across the state for asylum seekers, he asked, “So it shoved homeless people housed in your community in a hotel back out onto the streets, in order to provide hotel rooms to illegal immigrants.” Aguiar nodded in assent.

There have been no asylum-seekers bused to Riverhead

The partisan rhetoric surrounding the migrant crisis was likely what caused Aguiar to impose an executive order in the first place. While Aguiar maintains an “advisory” sent by Adams to Suffolk County was the basis for her decision to impose the executive order, she also said she heard right-wing talk radio host Curtis Sliwa was reporting the city was planning to bus migrants to Riverhead. She also spoke to Sliwa directly, she said. Council Member Tim Hubbard said Sliwa’s comments were “the basis” for the executive order. 

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

Sliwa, who lost to Adams in a bid for New York City mayor in 2021, dedicated the majority of his show that day to attacking New York City and the federal government’s response to the migrant crisis, including making unsubstantiated claims that migrants were being house in exchange for political campaign contributions. Aguiar said Sliwa’s reports were confirmed by “various sources” she did not name; she refused to answer follow-up questions as to how she corroborated the reports.

“I had credible, reliable evidence — and I don’t have to give anybody that evidence,” Aguiar said about her justification for imposing the order during the June 6 Town Board meeting. “I came from New York City, I worked in counterterrorism and I come from the intelligence field, and I teach in the intelligence field. So, I don’t need to be questioned…”

Since the lawsuit was filed, Aguiar has continued to defend the order in interviews with WRIV talk-show host Bruce Tria.  

“I can’t tell everywhere I go, how many people — doesn’t matter what color, what race — how many people that have indicated, thank you for doing it. Thank you. We were concerned. We don’t — we didn’t know where this was going and New York City has to get a hold of it,” Aguiar said on June 20. “They started to become a sanctuary city and these are the results.”

Editor’s note 6/27/23 1 p.m.: This article has been updated to include the amount of money being paid to the special counsel hired by the Town Board, which was obtained by a Freedom of Information Law request fulfilled after the article’s initial publication.

The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.

Avatar photo
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