OLA Hires a Human Rights Attorney

In face of myriad problems, a commitment to solutions
Part of Andrew Strong’s work as Organizacion Latino-Americana’s first full-time human rights lawyer is to deepen the network of immigration lawyers that OLA already calls upon to help people. Johnette Howard

When Andrew Strong was a young lawyer living in the Netherlands and working on United Nations human rights cases in The Hague, or working in Kosovo to help defend a victim of war crimes before that, he said he felt “a bit self-conscious” as an American human rights attorney because, “You’re talking to these people from the Balkans or Africa, and you turn around and think there are some real issues happening in America. There is work to be done right here.”

That conviction, as it turned out, was among the things that moved Mr. Strong to accept a three-year commitment to work as the first full-time human rights attorney for Organizacion Latino-Americana (OLA) of Eastern Long Island in June.

Mr. Strong and his wife, who was born in Sag Harbor, have three children and now live in Springs. He had been working in the East Hampton area since 2013 when Minerva Perez, OLA’s executive director, created his current position. Two donors who funded the job agreed with Ms. Perez that recent changes in both the letter and enforcement of United States immigration laws, especially since the 2016 national elections, have created a climate of fear and need for the Latino community and the East End community as a whole.

“And the need and the fears have only gotten worse,” Ms. Perez said, noting that if even just one member of a Latino family is undocumented, the entire family often lives in fear.

Mr. Strong, speaking last week over coffee at the Springs General Store, gave an example of the domino effect that can happen after that. Maybe such individuals are afraid to seek even basic medical care at the emergency room or go to the police if something happens. Maybe their children begin doing poorly at school or succumb to the stress in other ways.

“It’s hard because immigration on the federal level is broken, and it’s been intentionally broken,” Mr. Strong said. “And so, for one of the first times in American history, you can’t change your status. You can’t marry an American and become a citizen. You can’t live here peacefully for 10 years and pay taxes and have a path to citizenship anymore. So, there’s no way that people can adjust their federal status.”

“Then, on a state level, since 2007 you can’t get a driver’s license [in New York] without having documented status,” Mr. Strong continued. “And then, on a local level, you have a geography out here that requires a car and a transportation system that doesn’t really work well enough. But you need a car. So what do you do?”

Such problems don’t affect only the Latino community. This summer, numerous East End business owners were again unable to get work visas to bring foreign-born workers here legally, leaving their businesses handicapped and short-staffed during the high season.

Undocumented people, even those who have lived here for decades, face other conundrums. They’re vulnerable to wage theft, unsafe work conditions, human trafficking, and other abuses because they feel they can’t report such things to authorities — and their antagonists know it, too.

“We’ve seen instances of mortgage theft where people are saying to them, ‘You own this house,’ ” Mr. Strong said. “So they’re making payments. They put a deposit down. And then all the money disappears.”

Local bus service in this area stops around 7 p.m. (a problem that OLA and other agencies are trying to address). So some undocumented workers without a license may drive to work or elsewhere anyway. They may not be covered by auto insurance. If they get pulled over for violations as simple as failing to signal or driving with a broken taillight and authorities run their name in the system, they can be detained and thrown into jail if the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has issued an administrative warrant on them. 

And if they can’t make bail? They may stay in jail for months and get moved to an out-of-state facility as they await deportation proceedings.

Part of Mr. Strong’s work involves deepening the network of immigration lawyers that OLA already has to help people.

Ms. Perez and Mr. Strong are also actively engaging local institutions such as the town police chiefs and town supervisors in East Hampton and Southampton. They’ve asked them to publicly state the town’s policies and/or codify them into legislation that clearly states nonviolent members of the community will not be targeted so the community knows what it doesn’t have to fear, and what it does.

Mr. Strong said officials from both towns have told OLA they don’t actively pursue ICE warrants. But there is nothing to stop ICE from making raids on its own, which is happening.

When Mr. Strong appeared at the East Hampton Town Board meeting two weeks ago, and the Southampton Town Board before that, he urged town officials to recognize that “We need to do something to make sure we are not complicit in harming these members of our community. The moment is here. The moment is now. Cars are literally pulling up to houses and taking people away in the middle of the night. If we don’t do something now, then when?”

Ms. Perez said OLA is not interested in being some “inflammatory” agency that “just wags a finger at people or the authorities and says, ‘Bad! Bad! You’re bad.’ We’re here to help do the hard work it takes to change things, too.”

In addition to working on local legislation and enforcement, OLA is funding the purchase of six iPhones for the Southampton police officers to help with live access to interpreters out in the field if they encounter a non-English speaking person who is a victim of or witness to a crime. OLA provides diversity training to staffs.

Mr. Strong’s hiring is meant to be another piece of OLA’s commitment to creating solutions.

“Nobody here is saying we support something like driving without a license — we agree, give them a ticket, fine them,” Ms. Perez said. “But the rest of what’s happening?”

Mr. Strong said, “I think we’ve got to look at the laws humanely and intelligently and say, ‘What are we really doing here? What are we trying to accomplish when we’re sending somebody to jail?’ Especially when it’s triggering a deportation hearing and separating a family. For what? For a civil offense — not a criminal offense — like failing to signal? That’s not a proportional punishment. And it’s not humane.”

“There’s a vulnerability for somebody who is otherwise contributing to this community in all the ways that we think are important and, in generations past, would have had a pathway to becoming a citizen here. Now, they’re just totally left out to dry.”

Mr. Strong tells a story about meeting a social worker who is working with a young Latino girl. The girl said she wakes up each night and goes in to touch her sleeping parents just to make sure they’re still there.

“There isn’t a silver-bullet solution for everything,” Mr. Strong said, “but there are little concrete steps that can be taken to help, and it’s a matter of doing that responsibly and working with the town and the town structures to do it — but it is doable,” Mr. Strong stressed. “And that — that’s exciting, you know? It’s not like, ‘Well, all we have to do is organize 15 million people.’ No.”

“We can do things. Right here.