Asylum seekers are transferred via city bus from Port Authority bus terminal to a housing facility on May 14, 2023 in New York City. Photo: John Lamparski/Sipa USA via AP Images.

Facing a legal challenge from New York City, Riverhead Town’s most recent emergency order — originally put in place to bar asylum-seekers from being housed in hotels and motels in the town — removes all reference to asylum seekers and migrants in its language.

Thursday’s emergency order, the 13th renewal since Supervisor Yvette Aguiar first issued the order May 16, now orders that transient lodging facilities “do not accept any persons for long-term/non-transient housing inconsistent with approved and/or permitted uses and/or approved site plans within the Town of Riverhead.” Prior orders demand that those facilities “do not accept said migrants and/or asylum seekers for housing.” 

Under New York State Human Rights Law, it is unlawful to discriminate based on citizenship and immigration status. In its lawsuit, the city is arguing Riverhead’s emergency order violates state Humans Rights Law and other federal laws prohibiting discrimination.

The order also expresses, through its title, the intent to “amend” and “replace” the expired orders. The order’s text, however, does not state those orders are to be amended, or mention them beyond the recognition that they were previously in effect. 

The changes were made on a recommendation from the town’s outside counsel hired for the legal defense of the order, according to Town Attorney Erik Howard.

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

“For the past week or so, I’ve been going back and forth with them coming up with ways to tighten up some of the language in it,” Howard said. “And we felt that specifically identifying migrants was not necessarily capturing what we wanted in order to capture, which is basically like, don’t accept anyone at all for long term, non-transient lodging in hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, inns, lodges, all of that.” 

Under the town code, housing for 30 or more days is considered long-term and requires a town rental permit. 

There are several motels and hotels in the town doing business with the Suffolk County Department of Social Services to temporarily house homeless people in the area. That housing is supposed to be temporary until they secure permanent housing, Howard said, and if a person is housed there for 30 or more days, it would be a town code violation.

“My understanding is that the contract they were looking to enter into would be six months,” Howard said, referring to the city. “Just practically speaking, after six months, where is everybody going to go? What are they going to do for six months? Are they going to get jobs here and take away jobs on the farm that other people in town already have? I think it creates an employment problem for us. 

“And then you know what September rolls around, if you have any number of kids staying in a hotel, are they going to stay in a hotel all day, or are they going to go to the school district?,” he said.

The town is attempting to stop hotels and motels from “effectively changing their use” by entering into contracts to house people for more than 29 days, which he said New York City attempted to do.

The intent to amend and replace the other emergency orders were made to make the language of each order consistent. “The goal is to take the language that’s in the new one and have that be the language that you would basically consider to be in executive order one and have it carried forward to now,” Howard said. “I mean, it’s sort of like a reset — this is how we are describing the situation, the state of emergency now.”

“I don’t know functionally it means anything,” Howard said. “But I think that it, for the purposes of the case that’s going on against the city, I think it sort of clarifies what the intention of our order is.”

New York City filed a lawsuit early last month against Riverhead Town 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 city argues the orders violate state and federal laws, including those protecting civil and human rights under the United States Constitution. 

MORE COVERAGE: Residents criticize state of emergency, tell Riverhead officials it could fuel fear and hate of immigrants

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, and acknowledged it was considering placing some people temporarily in hotels outside of the city. The city claims in its filing the temporary placements would have “no cognizable harm” to the communities.

MORE COVERAGE: Aguiar attacks NYC lawsuit in new executive order, as town readies it legal defense

Howard said in an interview before the 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.”

Last month, the Town Board unanimously ratified 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. The attorneys have since filed a motion to change the venue of the case from New York Supreme Court to Suffolk Supreme Court, and sever the legal action against the town away from the other municipalities named in the lawsuit; both motions were granted on Thursday by Judge Lyle E. Frank.

The town has also filed an affirmation of opposition to the city’s motion asking the court to enjoin the emergency orders. In the statement, the town’s lawyer attacks the city’s policy of accepting migrants and state it “overpromised and undelivered to the thousands of illegal migrants who have since traveled to New York City.”

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

“The CITY has made its bed and must now lie in it,” the town’s lawyer wrote.

The town also argues, similarly to Aguiar’s executive order, that it cannot receive and sustain migrants coming into the town. “There are no allegations that any proposed placement in Riverhead is suitable for the migrants in that their physical, mental, religious, and food needs will be sufficiently met.”

The city does not have standing in the case, the town argues, because it has not suffered harm from the town’s emergency order. The city also does not have the authority to place migrants in Riverhead nor the need to, the town says.

The town has also filed an affidavit by Community Development Director Dawn Thomas, who discusses the current strain on the Riverhead Central School District and town infrastructure, and speculates about the impacts migrants coming to the town could have.

“Worse yet, the long-term addition of an unknown population of migrants to our TOWN has the impact of “redlining” and segregation. This is in violation of the Fair Housing Act,” Thomas’ affidavit says. “Our most recent federal census shows a 77. 7% increase in the Hispanic population in Riverhead and a corresponding decrease in our Black population of 15.6%. Governmental “redlining” of areas because it is expedient and convenient and because other TOWN’s (i.e., the Hamptons) will not/have not created affordable housing or accept a more diverse group of people is illegal and discriminatory.” [Editor’s note: As written.]

Howard said the town’s outside counsel is working on a motion to dismiss the city’s case. The motion would be filed once the case is entered into Suffolk County Supreme Court, he said.

State-of-Emergency-Executive-order-Extension.-14-07.20.2023pdf

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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