Immigrant communities and their network of advocates were on the alert on Long Island over the weekend as a “nationwide effort” took people into custody in at least three states.
While law enforcement agencies say such operations to round up immigrants haven’t taken place in Nassau and Suffolk counties, local concerns were heightened as word of enforcement actions spread from neighborhood to neighborhood through word-of-mouth and social media.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a statement Monday saying U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which pursues and detains people to be removed from the country, had “engaged in concerted, nationwide enforcement operations to take into custody and return at a greater rate adults who entered this country illegally with children” — an exodus that has risen over the last few years as people from Central America have fled violence and poverty.
The push “should come as no surprise,” Johnson said, as the agency seeks to follow its enforcement priorities.
“As I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration,” Johnson’s statement said, adding 121 individuals — among them adults and children who crossed the border after May 2014 — were taken into custody this weekend “primarily from Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina.”
The administration’s push struck a nerve on Long Island, where Salvadorans make up the largest immigrant group and Honduran and Guatemalan populations are growing.
Those fears sparked unconfirmed reports of sightings of agents in neighborhoods like Brentwood and Huntington Station.
Immigrants reached out to advocates and immigration attorneys in fear of running into police checkpoints on main thoroughfares or to check on rumors of raids at popular businesses.
“People are in a panic. People are afraid. I heard the streets of Brentwood were largely empty yesterday,” Maryann Sinclair Slutsky, executive director of immigrant-advocacy group Long Island Wins, said Monday. “This is sending a terrible chill down the spine of the entire Latino community.”
An alert that the group sent out told immigrants that the federal government “began raids in different parts of the country” including possible raids in Brentwood. It instructed them to not open their doors, unless agents came with a signed warrant; to remain silent and to not sign documents.
Osman Canales, a community organizer with the Long Island Immigrant Student Advocates, spent much of the weekend relaying alleged incidents on social media but none of the raid or checkpoint reports were confirmed. “This is the panic and fear that immigration is creating,” he said.
His organization is hosting a forum this Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Brentwood office of the Salvadoran consulate on Long Island to inform immigrants of their rights should ICE agents come knocking on their doors.
“We call on the president and our legislators to stop this plan to do mass deportations because it is inhumane and it just creates panic,” Canales said.
A source with the New York office of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement said “there were no operations on Long Island” this weekend.
But the office issued a statement Monday saying “ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security. This includes individuals, whether alone or with family members, who have been apprehended while attempting to unlawfully enter the United States, recent border crossers, and individuals who have received a final order of removal on or after January 1, 2014.”
The agency said the administration “is actively exploring ways to expand access to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program” to children and families from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala that are “in need of international protection.”
Suffolk Police Deputy Commissioner Timothy Sini said his department was not involved. “The Suffolk County Police Department did not conduct checkpoints in either Brentwood or Huntington Station in the last few days, nor did it participate in any joint operations with federal immigration authorities during that time,” Sini said. “We value our relationship with the Latino community and the [department] is here to protect and serve all of its communities.”
Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun, a Nassau Police Department spokesman, said the immigration enforcement agency “has not requested local law enforcement assistance with this matter” and added that the department’s community affairs unit will discuss the matter “with various community leaders.”
At some of the places rumored to have been targets of enforcement actions, like a Huntington Station supermarket or a bakery shop in Brentwood, employees denied them.
“We were here all weekend and until midnight and I can tell you that nothing was happening,” Nataly Martínez, an employee at La Espiguita Bakery in Brentwood, said in Spanish. “People were texting us to ask if immigration had come here . . . but it wasn’t true.”
Patrick Young, program director of the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead and Brentwood, said just talk of enforcement actions scares many who are vulnerable.
“The community was basically traumatized during roundups that went on in 2006 and 2007 and I think that type of trauma is revived with this,” Young said. “There’s also this political debate in the background” with presidential primaries “where immigrants hear there’s a lot of anti-Latino sentiment.”