Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone said the county has made strides to erase the its "national reputation for intolerance," and Republican executive candidate James O'Connor said the county needs to focus on its budget problems.
Both men spoke at a candidates forum called Growing a Diverse Long Island, sponsored by Long Island Wins, Long Island Civic Engagement Table and the Spanish-language newspaper Noticia at the Brentwood Library last night.
O'Connor told those in attendance he supported a bill by state Sen. Tom Croci (R-Sayville) that would cut funding to local governments that don't fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities in deportation proceedings.
"I support the bill. I know not everyone here will agree with that," said O'Connor, a Great River attorney and former North Hempstead board member. "When violent criminals are in our jails, we should do everything in our power to work with ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]."
Bellone noted he came into office in 2012, after the 2008 beating death in Patchogue of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero, and signed a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice promising bias-free policing.
The county executive announced a policy in October 2014 to not honor requests from ICE to detain undocumented immigrants without a court-issued warrant. Similar policies were adopted by Suffolk Sheriff Vincent DeMarco and in Nassau County.
Bellone said he hadn't read Croci's bill, but was concerned about "unintended consequences" of increasing the jail population, which could trigger a state mandate to build a $300 million jail. He said the county was not releasing "violent criminals" back into the community, as O'Connor claimed.
Jaime Ann Hechtman-Ulloa, executive director of the Hope 4 Immigrants Coalition of L.I., said she found the answers unsatisfactory. "It needed to be more directly addressed," she said, adding that she believed O'Connor's views of the deportations "tear apart families."
It was only the third time the candidates had appeared on stage together in this campaign. The two met for the first time Friday, O'Connor said. The election is Nov. 3. Bellone held a 33-point lead over O'Connor, according to a July Newsday poll.
O'Connor said the county was "hurtling over a financial cliff" under large police contracts and spending.
Bellone urged residents to compare where the county was four years ago, when the county faced an even larger deficit.