President Donald Trump’s calls for increased enforcement of federal immigration laws and memos issued last week by the Department of Homeland Security outlining a broader focus on finding and detaining anyone who is in the country illegally have members of the East Hampton community on edge.
Oswaldo Palomo of East Hampton, the pastor of the Vida Abundante church in Wainscott, said church members had been turning to him for information and assistance over the last few weeks.
“People are afraid. People are very scared. We have people crying every day. They don’t want to go out. Every single day we get phone calls, and go visit them, and [help them] find good lawyers.”
“We’re working with the people,” he said. “We’re trying to give them right advice.”
Mr. Palomo, who came here from Costa Rica in the late 1980s and is now a citizen of the United States, said that while he understands the need to maintain a secure country, “you’re hurting people so bad.”
America’s immigration laws need an overhaul, he said. “We have people here, 20 years living in the country, and they have no chance to do anything. Instead of giving people a chance to see if they can apply, they’re going to penalize them.”
“It’s not easy,” Mr. Palomo said. “Whether the government likes it or not, we are here. There is a real problem in the country that they haven’t been able to take care of. They don’t want to.”
While New York State has taken the stance that immigration enforcement is a federal endeavor, state motor vehicle law makes it impossible for undocumented immigrants to legally obtain driver’s licenses.
Under the new immigration enforcement push, he said, those who find it necessary to drive, even without a license, are fearful of being pulled over for a traffic infraction and finding themselves held and deported.
In the last few weeks, Mr. Palomo said, people have been staying out of their cars, instead carpooling with a documented, licensed driver, or seeking help from Mr. Palomo and others from his church who have been driving children to school or family members to work.
“In this town there are a lot of scared people,” said Sandra Melendez, an East Hampton attorney specializing in immigration, tax, and criminal law. “Everybody’s always afraid, but now it’s worse.”
The increase in the number of immigration cases called to court since President Trump’s executive orders on immigration has “been crazy,” she said. She has been representing clients in court virtually every day of the week, before judges who are calling up to a hundred cases a day. But before going before the judge, she said, clients are asking “Are you sure I’m going to be able to come back if I go to court?”
Like others offering support to the immigrant community, she encourages undocumented immigrants with children to make formal legal plans in case they are detained for immigration violations and separated from their U.S.-born citizen children. “A power of attorney should be granted to someone who is a legal resident or a U.S. citizen,” she said.
“There is a lot of concern about families being separated; it’s heartbreaking.”
And she keeps abreast, daily, of updates from the Immigration Lawyers Association. “I wake up with it and I go to bed with it because everything’s been changing. It’s a mess right now,” she said. The situation calls for analysis on a “case-by-case basis.”
Ms. Melendez also advises clients to carry a file with vital documents — their children’s birth certificates, tax filings, “anything that they would need — who you are, what you’ve done here, what are your ties to this country?” That way, should they run afoul of authorities, a lawyer would have the information needed to help them begin to sort things out.
“That memo makes everyone a target,” said Ms. Melendez of the federal policy shift toward prosecuting anyone — not just people convicted of a crime or those who have deportation orders — who is here illegally.
People are “changing the way they live” out of fear, she said. They are staying off the roads, and staying in their houses, ordering food in rather than shopping, and staying constantly attuned to the latest word about what is happening in East Hampton, she said.
Ms. Melendez, who along with the others interviewed said she was not aware of generalized Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids or checks on the East End, tries to reassure clients and apprise them of their rights. “They need to be proactive, but not to go crazy,” she said.
“ICE has been active and agents have been here in East Hampton and in other East End towns regularly,” East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo wrote in an email this week.
As was affirmed last week by East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell and East Hampton Village Mayor Paul Rickenbach, neither town nor village police have taken, or will seek, an active role in immigration law enforcement. However, the departments do cooperate with ICE if a person on a federal list for detention is arrested locally.
While President Trump’s order, and subsequent policy memos from the Department of Homeland Security, “expand the parameters for detention orders and expedite the deportation process,” as Chief Sarlo explained, there have been no verified reports yet of ICE agents here doing other than what they had been doing — seeking out undocumented immigrants wanted for a crime or for ignoring a deportation order.
The Rev. Gerardo Roma Garcia, who leads a Latino ministry at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in East Hampton, spoke this week of a young woman who answered a knock on her door in Springs to find ICE agents outside. They did not tell her who they were looking for, he said, and left when she asked them to show a court order.
It is a “very, very difficult time, not just for the Latino community, but for the immigrant community overall,” Mr. Garcia said. “Children are very anxious,” he said. “People so, so afraid of what’s going on — that has an impact.”
The reverend, with the help of other members of the East Hampton Clericus, passes out lunch several days a week to day laborers who gather looking for work at the East Hampton train station.
In the last few weeks some who are there regularly have been conspicuously absent.
Others in the immigrant community, he said, are carrying on as usual, even as the legal and social landscape shifts.
Mr. Garcia said it was “very good” to hear that local police will not enter into any agreement with the feds to act as immigration law enforcers.
“Most of the community is really concerned, and is really supportive of the immigrant community, which is very positive,” he said.
But many remain on edge. One church member, Mr. Palomo said, is boarding with a family that includes someone for whom ICE has a deportation order and “he’s scared to death” that he will be picked up along with the person the federal agents are seeking.
In conjunction with the clericus and the Organizacion Latino-Americana, and in coordination with East End schools, the East Hampton Town Latino Advisory Committee is organizing a meeting to be held sometime this month in order to distribute information to the immigrant community, Maritza Guichay, a member of the committee, said yesterday. “My main concern is to keep people calm,” she said.
In particular, she said, the group wants to help people designate powers of attorney for their children without having to seek expensive legal help.