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‘Sanctuary city’ the big topic at Southold Anti-Bias Task Force event

Synergy Greenport

Minutes before a meeting between Greenport residents and police officials was set to begin Monday evening, only a small group waited inside a classroom at St. Agnes School.

They were soon joined by dozens of neighbors, filling the room and making it necessary to move to a larger space in the building.

By the time Synergy Greenport began, a crowd of nearly 100 had gathered and one very specific topic was on their minds: the safety of immigrants on the North Fork.

The tone was set with the very first question, when Greenport resident Poppy Johnson asked if the community could be declared a “sanctuary city” to protect immigrants currently living in the village.

“Our department is here to protect and serve our community … I have no plans on dedicating officers to do any kind of immigration work,” Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley said, adding that a “sanctuary” designation is a complicated process that to his knowledge hasn’t been previously discussed or researched by the town. Southold Town Board members Bill Ruland and Jim Dinizio concurred.

“I’ve never had a discussion about sanctuary city,” Mr. Dinizio said.

Greenport Village Mayor George Hubbard Jr. said the little research he had done revealed that because the village does not have its own police force, such a designation would need to be made at the town level.

It was clear from that very first question that this event, the second meeting sponsored by the Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force, was driven by concern about the new presidential administration’s immigration policies. The discussion was led by James Banks, chairman of the Southampton Town Anti-Bias Task Force and coordinator of multicultural affairs at Suffolk County Community College. Mark Woolley, district director for Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), was present for part of the meeting and Greenport and Southold schools Superintendent David Gamberg also fielded questions.

Many of the attendees were Hispanic, including Oscar Cruz of Greenport, who spoke about his experience as an immigrant on the North Fork. He and Ms. Johnson recalled a September 2007 raid in the village by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents during which about a dozen alleged illegal immigrants were arrested as part of a larger ICE effort in Suffolk County targeting gang members.

During that incident, Mr. Cruz said, many undocumented immigrants with no gang affiliation were also taken into custody.

“We love America, we love this culture and we try to get involved,” he said, speaking for himself and others. “I don’t want to be separated from my children.”

Mr. Cruz asked Chief Flatley if this is something that could happen again.

“That was 10 years ago and obviously a whole different political climate then,” the chief said.

The chief said Southold’s only involvement in the 2007 raid was to run names of targeted individuals through the department’s database and to send an officer to the locations. He said it remains to be seen what directives, if any, Southold Town might receive from federal officials on immigration initiatives moving forward. Mr. Dinizio added that it’s unclear if local officials even have authority to protect a person who is under federal investigation.

Oscar Cruz of Greenport addresses town officials at Monday night's Synergy Greenport event. (Credit: Krysten Massa)
Oscar Cruz of Greenport addresses town officials at Monday night’s Synergy Greenport event. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

Responding directly to a question about whether Southold might consider a “sanctuary” designation, Mr. Ruland, who also serves as deputy supervisor, said the town will work closely with the task force in the coming weeks to develop ideas on how to move forward.

“We’re very fortunate in the Town of Southold that we have a very active Anti-Bias Task Force,” he said.

Another resident asked how local schools are dealing with students affected by immigration issues.

“The current situation has certainly inflamed anxiety,” Mr. Gamberg said.

He said the schools have plans in place to address student concerns and also spoke briefly about a new project called “One Greenport” that’s meant to celebrate diversity.

He said it’s important right now for teachers to be alert and make sure all students feel safe at school.

Chief Flatley said a post-election incident at Mattituck High School, which was previously reported in The Suffolk Times, led to a meeting of students, staff and police officials, including Spanish-speaking officer Alex Chenche, who was also present Monday. That meeting was held to assure students that police are an available resource for safety and protection, Chief Flatley said.

Concerns about how immigration policies might affect the North Fork business community were also raised during the event.

Anne Trimble, co-owner of Trimble’s of Corchaug Nursery in Cutchogue, was one of several speakers who said immigrant laborers are concerned about their well-being. She also said her business could not survive without the immigrant workforce.

“We will tank as a business, and I think the North Fork will tank as a community, without our immigrant population,” she said.

Though it dominated the conversation, immigration wasn’t the only topic of discussion Monday. Other community members raised crime-related issues, including drugs in schools and unresolved police matters.

Greenport Trustee Doug Roberts asked Chief Flatley if any arrests had been made in three high-profile cases: one involving a “peeping tom,” another about a stabbing outside the IGA and a series of local burglaries. Mr. Roberts said residents have expressed concern to him about how police have handled these matters.

“Can you help us tell everybody about the policing you really want to be doing?” Mr. Roberts said, questioning whether the department is as concerned about Greenport as it is about other North Fork communities.

Chief Flatley said the village is well covered by the department. One of the purposes of hosting Monday’s event was for the community to help the police by speaking up about what they know is taking place, he said.

“It’s very important for us to have everybody here,” the chief added. “Whether you are a business owner in Greenport, you own a house in Greenport or you rent in Greenport, we need input to do our job correctly.”

After the event, the chief said he was happy with the large turnout and had expected immigration to be a major topic of discussion.

“If that’s what’s on everybody’s minds, then we should talk about it,” he said. “I think it showed a good cross-section of the community and that’s what we were looking for.”

Sonia Spar, co-chair of the Anti-Bias Task Force, said it was encouraging that so many people attended.

“It was a success,” she said. “We’re going to continue doing events that bring the community together so that we hear the voices of others.”

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Photo: Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley at the Synergy Greenport event organized by the Southold Anti-Bias Task Force Monday night. During the event, which intended to open a line of communication between village residents and the police department, Chief Flatley discussed concerns about immigration reform and safety in the village. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

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