Amid the migrant crisis in New York City, Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar declared a state of emergency and signed an executive order banning hotels and other facilities from accepting migrants. NewsdayTV’s Cecilia Dowd reports. Credit: Anthony Florio; Newsday file

The Town of Riverhead has become the first Long Island municipality to declare a state of emergency regarding asylum seekers, blocking motels and other facilities from accepting New York City migrants, joining nearly a dozen counties statewide.

An executive order signed Tuesday by Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar contends that an "influx" of asylum seekers would overwhelm schools and stretch town resources. 

In an interview, Aguiar said two hotels in the town and a third location that house homeless and disabled people in Riverhead expressed interest in signing a one-year contract with the city to accept migrants. Aguiar declined to identify the locations but said she is steadfastly against any such placements in her town.

“This is going to tax our schools, and it’s not healthy for our community," Aguiar said, adding: "We are a small community. It’s a matter of public safety, health and welfare.”

In recent months, tens of thousands of migrants have arrived in New York City, many on bus trips arranged by the governors of border states such as Texas. Those numbers are expected to accelerate after the expiration last week of Title 42, a Trump-era coronavirus policy, later renewed by the Biden administration, used to turn back migrants at the southern border.

With city resources strained, Mayor Eric Adams sought temporary housing assistance from other municipalities but the outreach has mostly fallen on deaf ears.

Town officials from across Suffolk said they've been in contact with Gov. Kathy Hochul's office and dismissed the idea of migrants arriving in droves as a baseless rumor.

Huntington Town Supervisor Ed Smyth said he's received no "information from any other municipality or agency notifying us of an influx of immigrants."

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said there's been no discussion about accepting migrants, while Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said Aguiar's order is an overreach.

“Supervisors do not have the authority to direct who can come in, and go out of each town and I’m not going to give the public some false illusion that I can do anything about it,” he said.

In a statement, a bipartisan group representing Suffolk's 10 town supervisors said the migrant crisis is the responsibility of the federal government, and local governments should not be forced to "shoulder this burden.”

Earlier this month, Orange and Rockland counties declared "states of emergency" to block the New York City from sending hundreds of migrants to area hotels.

The counties also filed lawsuits to block the city's plan, even as 186 migrants were already housed at a pair of hotels in the Orange County city of Newburgh. The counties last week were granted temporary restraining orders blocking Adams from sending them additional asylum seekers.

Nearly a dozen other upstate counties and towns, predominantly led by Republican county executives, have filed similar orders in recent weeks prohibiting the acceptance of city migrants. They each cite a state law allowing county executives to establish states of emergency in the "event of a disaster, rioting, catastrophe, or similar public emergency."

Last week, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Rockland and Orange counties on behalf of four migrant clients. The suit argues the orders violate the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the United States Constitution by restricting the rights of the migrants to travel and reside across the state.

Amy Belsher, the NYCLU's lead attorney on the case, said migrants are being used as "political pawns" by county and town leaders.

"These are people who are fleeing really traumatic situations," Belsher said. "They just arrived, and they are not able to find adequate shelter. By preventing them from entering into these programs, they're really harming people."

Riverhead community leaders said they're concerned Aguiar's order will stoke anti-immigrant fears. 

"For someone that already has that unrealistic fear, I think it can exacerbate that," said Juan Micieli-Martinez, co-founder of the Heart of Riverhead Civic Association. "Unfortunately, a tactic like this drives that wedge further and spreads things apart further versus trying to help any situation."

Former Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith, who now chairs the town’s Democratic Committee, called the order a “political smoke screen” designed to "stir up controversy."

A dose of compassion is required, said Father Larry Duncklee, pastor at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Riverhead.

"As a Christian," Duncklee said, "I think we should do everything possible … to do something with the immigrant situation and the homelessness situation."

With Matthew Chayes, Brianne Ledda, Carl MacGowan, Jean-Paul Salamanca, Tara Smith and Joe Werkmeister.

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