Alejandro, 43, and Ricardo, 45, wait everyday by the 7-Eleven in Southampton Village looking for work. They stand among a crowd of other men, sipping coffee, their hands in their coat pockets, waiting for contractors to drive up and offer them work for the day.
Ricardo, originally from Colombia, has lived illegally in the United States for 21 years and resides in Hampton Bays. He and the other undocumented day laborers came to Southampton Village to fill the needs of contractors looking for cheap labor.
“These guys only work for really cheap money,” Ricardo said, referring to the other men waiting with him. “From a business point of view, this is cheap labor.”
Throughout his campaign, President-Elect Donald Trump promised to deport people like Ricardo and Alejandro and build a wall to keep them out of the country. But now, even despite Trump’s victory, both men have no fear of deportation. Both Alejandro and Ricardo, as well as the other men waiting, don’t know anyone that has been deported, and don’t believe they are in any danger of being deported.
“It’s only politics. Only words,” Alejandro, who has lived in the United States illegally for 13 years and is originally from Guatemala, said.
Ricardo stated that there was no fear of deportation or of the local police among the men waiting for work. “Sometimes presidents and all these people talk a lot. We don’t talk about politics,” Ricardo said.
They’ll continue to visit the site, along with dozens of other men, and wait for the day’s work without fear of what they call Trump’s “political talk.”
Despite immigration and deportation becoming a central issue in the general election, the situation in Southampton Village reveals local law enforcement officers have little authority to enforce federal immigration policy, making deportation less of a priority in the village and on the local level.
Lt. Christopher Wetter of the Southampton Village Police Department (SVPD) says that they barely have had any contact with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) despite the high population of undocumented immigrants in the area. Suffolk County, which encompasses Southampton Village, has an estimated population of 51,000 undocumented immigrants and of that number, an estimated 32,000 (63 percent) of the undocumented population are from Mexico and Central American countries, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Of the estimated number of undocumented living or working in Southampton Village in Suffolk County, many will not face deportation.
In the past two years, only two individuals who have been arrested in Southampton Village had prior warrants for deportation. ICE issued one request to the SVPD to hold a person until ICE officers could arrive to begin the deportation process.
Jose Geronimo Canel Zet immigrated to the United States from Guatemala, and began working as a roofer. On March 19, 2014, Canel, then 34, was arrested while driving on Main Street in Southampton. He violated multiple traffic laws and when the arresting officer, Sgt. Suzanne Hurteau, checked she found he’d been previously arrested on four different dates, all DWI related, according to the arrest report. A phone call by police to the ICE Warrant hotline confirmed that Canel was wanted for deportation. A judge in Raymondville, Texas had ordered Canel to be deported on July 10, 2008, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
While Canel was detained by the SVPD and picked up by ICE officers, another defendant with an outstanding warrant of removal was not. On December 20, 2015, Gerber Martinez-Rico, then 32, was driving a car with inadequate headlights. He didn’t have a license and in August had failed to pay a fine for a prior traffic violation. He was arrested for aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle but when ICE was contacted regarding his warrant of removal, they stated they would not extradite Martinez-Rico, according to the arrest report. He was released on 50 dollars bail.
We aren’t ICE. We don’t deport people.
Just off the main road of Southampton Village, not far from where Canel was pulled over in his white Toyota, is the hiring site where Ricardo and Alejandro wait for work. Since immigration enforcement falls under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security and ICE, the most Southampton Village could do to manage the area was make it illegal to stop, stand, or park on the road adjacent to the waiting area.
“It’s a federal government issue, and it’s really been dumped on local municipalities,” Det. Sgt. Herman Lamison of the SVPD said.
At the federal level, the rules for how law enforcement should handle encounters with illegal immigrants has changed dramatically over the past few years. Prior to 2014, ICE had followed guidelines under the Secure Communities program, which allowed them to hold an undocumented immigrant who committed a crime in custody while ICE decided whether or not to to take that person into its custody.
It was replaced by the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP) in December of 2014. PEP limits local law enforcement from keeping a person in custody and only lets ICE take custody of undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of committing a crime. Immigrants convicted of higher priority crimes, such as gang activity, are prioritized for deportation. When those individuals are arrested, ICE can send a request to a local law enforcement agency asking for them to hold that person until ICE can come, apprehend him or her, and begin the deportation process.
According to a 2014 press release by Eric T. Schneiderman, New York State Attorney General, “Decisions about whether to respond to such requests for notification are voluntary and compliance with these requests remains at the discretion of the local law enforcement agency.”
In November of 2014, Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco issued a memorandum stating that the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) officials cannot detain someone at ICE’s request, unless they can present a judicially issued warrant authorizing the detention.
Before the change in procedure, Steve Levy, the former Suffolk County Executive who served from 2004 to 2011, issued policies on how law enforcement in Suffolk County should handle illegal immigration. Levy called for county police officers to report all arrests of illegal immigrants to ICE. According to Levy, his policies were labeled as anti-immigrant by advocacy groups and local and national media.
After taking office, Levy received complaints from residents in Suffolk County about the large numbers of undocumented immigrants living in small family homes on their streets. When he would expect someone to complain about a pothole or a street light that wasn’t working, residents would instead voice concerns of 30 people living in a three-bedroom home next to them.
Levy said that all he wanted was to cooperate with the federal government under the laws that were in place to improve the situation. He said local police did not deport people because they didn’t have the authority to do so.
“Ultimately, it’s been the political correctness over the last decade that’s really stifled the ability of ICE officials to do their job,” Levy said.
Levy said he was a victim of being labeled as a racist or as anti-hispanic by the media and was even accused of participating in “ethnic cleansing” for shutting down an illegal two-bedroom house rental with 66 undocumented men living inside.
While Levy sees the change in ICE policies as a calculated political strategy by Democrats and lobbyists, in Southampton Village, Lamison understands the limits of what he can do at a local level.
“Whether it’s building a wall or it’s kicking them out or bringing them in and getting them legalized, it’s a big political ball with that and I don’t think anyone had the right answer for that at this point,” Lamison said, adding that picking everyone up and removing them from the country would be very costly.
That cost is largely a reason for the evolving policy. Along with the political tides of Washington, the lack of resources within ICE and at various law enforcement levels has created what Levy called a “schizophrenic” policy. ICE would receive directives from Washington that were all over the place, Levy said, adding that one year the rules would be strictly enforced, and another year not as much, making it difficult to understand protocol.
Besides the inconsistencies at the federal level, local law enforcement agencies, like the SVPD, are simply not in the business of enforcing federal immigration law.
“We aren’t ICE. We don’t deport people,” Wetter said. “We don’t have that ability or capability. We’re just enforcing the New York State vehicle and traffic law and the New York State penal law.”
A Holiday Inn Express
Trump has promised to focus on removing criminally convicted undocumented immigrants and, throughout his whole campaign, has promised to build a wall on the southern border and have Mexico pay for its construction.
In Southampton Village, Mayor Epley is skeptical of how realistic Trump’s plans are.
“They talk about building a wall, a great border, and Mexico’s going to pay for it and stuff. That’s never going to happen,” Epley said, adding that mass deportation is highly unlikely due to not having jail systems to detain people or the ability to transport them. “From a logistical standpoint, I realize that it’s absolutely absurd. From a political rhetoric standpoint, that’s what people want to hear.”
Despite immigration’s place on the national stage during the presidential election, on Long Island, concern over immigrants in the country illegally has decreased.
“The number one issue in Nassau and Suffolk County has always been taxes. The question is, ‘What’s the number two issue?’” said Mike Dawidziak, a conservative political consultant and pollster. There was a time, from 2001 to 2003 that the number two issue for Long Island voters was polled as being immigration, peaking at 15 percent of Long Islander’s choosing it as their issue of most concern, according to Dawidziak’s research. Now, immigration is probably around two or three percent. After the recession in 2008, fiscal issues bumped off immigration.
“Things like housing prices, employment, wages, etcetera all became more important,” Dawidziak said. Meanwhile, the population of Latinos on Long Island has grown as has the percentage of those whom are not U.S. citizens, according to data from the latest U.S. Census Bureau.
Nassau and Suffolk counties account for more than 25 percent of undocumented immigrants in New York as of July 2015, according to an article in Newsday. Of the 16,152 immigration cases that were heard in New York in 2015, more than 80 percent of defendants were determined as allowed to remain to the country.
In Southampton Village, most of the immigrants in the country illegally that come in contact with law enforcement simply go through local courts and do not enter the deportation process. They might get pulled over for driving without a license or registration and will get ticketed, fined, and then move on, Lamison said.
The worst case scenario for those individuals with traffic violations and no ICE warrants is that their car is seized. Southampton is one of the municipalities in Suffolk County that abides by the Suffolk County Seizure Law, which allows SVPD to seize the car of anyone with two violations of driving without a license. Most of the people who find themselves in this situation are in the country illegally, Wetter said. There were so many vehicle seizures that SVPD was taking 5 to 10 cars a day. The Southampton Town Police even stopped seizing cars due to overflow in the impound lot.
“I think they look at it as we need a full-time tow truck,” Wetter said. “It’s so plentiful and it’s so frequent it’s almost an impossibility to keep up with.”
Wetter added that seizing cars is the most likely worst-case scenario for undocumented immigrants in the local area, admitting that ICE detainers are not something that pop up quite often.
When they do pop up, ICE is contacted but then it’s up to them to either choose to extradite, as in the Canel case, or let the defendant go, like in the Rico-Martinez case. There’s also minimal time for ICE to make their decision. Detainers are meant to last for a maximum of 48 hours and at the SVPD, there are barely the resources to hold someone that long.
“We don’t hold people for any extended period of time here. We’re really just an overnight stay. Like a Holiday Inn Express,” Wetter said. “If we can give you an appearance ticket and and get some bail from you and get you out the door, that’s typically how we operate.”
On August 1st, Southampton Village Police arrested Marvin Saul Siciliano-Nunez, an undocumented immigrant who broke into a Village home and sexually assaulted an underage girl.
Nunez, 20, broke into a home on Little Plains Road and made sexual demands of 19-year-old female and threatened her with bodily harm if she did not comply, according to Lamison. The victim managed to flee from her home naked, being chased out onto her lawn by Nunez with a baseball bat in his hand. Construction workers on the corner of Little Plains Road saw Nunez and chased him down until police came. He was arrested 30 minutes later. Nunez is originally from El Salvador and found work as a painter in Southampton. Lamison said the Nunez case is one of the most highlighted incidents in the Village because of how rare these incidents occur in Southampton, which is home to billionaires and a vacation spot for celebrities.
After his arrest, Lamison says that Nunez is facing between 18 to 25 years in prison, though his attorney, David Geller, is fighting for five years. Only after Nunez serves his time, will he probably be deported. Rachael Yong Yow, Public Affairs Officer at ICE, could not comment directly on Nunez’s status of deportation, but did say that ICE’s focus is on criminals and those who threaten national security.
“ICE’s role in the immigration enforcement system is focused on two primary missions: (1) the identification and apprehension of criminal aliens and other removable individuals located in the United States; and (2) the detention and removal of those individuals apprehended in the interior of the U.S.,” said Yow.
Wetter, who was present for the arrest of Nunez, said that he is a “a perfect example” of someone dangerous living among society. ”I think you’re getting some outcry from the American public that’s like ‘No, that’s where it’s gotta stop.’”
The majority of undocumented immigrants in Southampton Village are not like Nunez. Epley sees most of these immigrants as a necessary workforce that local businesses need to survive.
“I would like to see the ability for people who are already in the country, that don’t have any type of criminal record, to be able to access working status and working papers.” Epley said.
Wetter, whose four children are part of a dual Spanish and English language program in Southampton School District, is also hoping for change. “My feeling is they just need to pay American taxes like the rest of us and when it comes to say my line of work, get a driver’s license. Please,” Wetter said. “Know the rules of the road so you don’t put my wife and kids in the mini-van in danger.”
Wetter recently attended his son’s first grade classroom and saw first hand the changing diversity in the Southampton Village community.
“His birthday was in October and I took cupcakes to the class,” Wetter said. “I looked out at his class sitting in front of me and saw a lot of Latino kids. Maybe two Caucasian boys and couple African-American kids and a majority of the kids were Latino, and many of them did not speak English.”
Wetter, who grew up in Southampton, has faced criticism from other parents about enrolling his children in the dual language program. They’ve asked him why, in America, would he not have his children speaking English at school, but he’s pragmatic and sees it as an opportunity for his kids to learn another language.
Despite Wetter’s hope that the president-elect will be able to strike a deal on immigration reform, Lamison acknowledged the long history of political fractiousness that results in little change to immigration policy.
“You gotta figure out a way to naturalize them, deal with them, get them to work, get them to pay taxes and it’s just a political fireball right now. Has been for years,” Lamison said.
This political fireball is why deportation isn’t the most concerning issue for Alejandro and Ricardio in Southampton, and it’s why they will keep coming back to the hiring site with little worry.
“We’re just looking for work,” Alejandro said. “I don’t think we’re doing nothing illegal here. Just looking for work.”