Riverhead officials and immigrants' advocates met Thursday morning for a frank discussion on an emotionally charged topic: the town government's treatment of immigrants who are here illegally and whether police should play a role in deporting them.
The 90-minute panel discussion focused on what activists said were misconceptions about immigrants living illegally in a town where tensions have been on display in recent weeks.
Representatives of several groups said they organized the meeting after three Riverhead Town Board members, in comments last month to the news website RiverheadLOCAL.com, expressed concerns that the town was a "sanctuary city" because police do not detain people at the request of federal authorities who suspect them of immigration violations.
"There is a lot of misinformation and rhetoric thrown around all across the country in the last couple of months, and even in our own communities," said Maryann Sinclair Slutsky, director of the immigrant-advocacy group Long Island Wins. "We're here to sort out the facts."
Riverhead Town Police Chief David Hegermiller confirmed at the meeting that officers do not honor requests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to detain people suspected of immigration violations unless federal authorities have a warrant -- a practice common in departments across the country, including Suffolk County.
Amol Sinha, the Suffolk County director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said immigrants who are here illegally have the same civil rights as citizens and cannot be held without probable cause. He said federal court decisions have held that municipalities are legally liable if they are sued by someone who is illegally detained.
"Not only is it wrong in a moral sense and a community sense to hold on to people without probable cause, it's something that could lead to legal liability and costly lawsuits for the town," Sinha said.
He added that the lack of lawful immigration status is a civil -- not criminal -- violation at the federal level that town police shouldn't attempt to enforce.
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said after the meeting that she still believed Riverhead police should have an "open communication with the federal government" if they arrest someone who is on the federal government's list of immigration violation suspects.
Councilman George Gabrielsen said after the meeting that he still believed immigrants living here illegally who commit serious crimes such as driving while intoxicated should be deported.
"I would say my biggest problem is an undocumented immigrant from wherever who breaks the law and is put back on the street," Gabrielsen said. "We can't turn our backs on that."
Councilman John Dunleavy said he's "for the Latino community" but is still concerned the town has a reputation as a sanctuary city that attracts immigrants entering the country illegally.
Riverhead had the fastest-growing Latino population of Long Island's 13 towns and two cities between 2000 and 2010, according to census data. Immigrants' advocates said heated rhetoric by officials could discourage immigrants from participating in public life.
Bishop Emil Wcela of St. John the Evangelist Church in Riverhead appealed for compassion in national and local debates over immigration.
"My words this morning are just a reminder that our country and our community of Riverhead are dealing not just with a problem, but with men, women and children with human lives and human hopes for whom we share some responsibility," Wcela said.