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Community-based program aims to assist Long Island immigrants

A quickly growing rapid response network on Long Island aims to connect locals with immigrants living daily with the fear that they maybe deported.

The systems are organized by Long Island Jobs With Justice, a coalition that supports immigrants’ rights. 

Ten community-based networks have already been established across the island, in areas such as Hampton Bays, Babylon and northern Brookhaven. A North Fork rapid response team will be facilitated through the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, said Richard Koubek, the organization’s community outreach coordinator.

Interested local residents assembled last week at Sacred Heart Church in Cutchogue. Some were there for retraining, others to get involved for the first time, Mr. Koubek said. Of the 30 people who attended, 20 confirmed that would participate, he said.

Mr. Koubek broke the network’s goals into three parts.

The first is accompaniment. This means a network member will go along for support when an immigrant must appear in court, whether it’s for a local traffic ticket, in family court or at Federal Plaza in Central Islip.

Those with a court appointment can let the network know if they’d like someone to accompany them, said Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate.

Having someone present to demonstrate emotional or physical support from the community can make a difference in court, she said, adding that she has acted as a witness in immigration court a number of times.

“Your presence is simply presence,” she said of network volunteers.

Accompaniments are also meant to ease fears and to observe, as ICE has been known to make arrests in court, Mr. Koubek and Sister Margaret said. People fear that the day they go to traffic court to pay a ticket is the day they’ll get arrested by ICE.

Sister Margaret told the story of a man who has lived in Riverhead since he arrived from Guatemala more then a decade ago, at age 15. About four months ago, he went to Federal Plaza for his green card interview and when the interview was done, ICE “came and took him and he was deported,” she said.

The man has a wife, three children and a local business that employed four people, Sister Margaret added. He did “everything by the book, never even got a parking ticket,” she said, and he had a Social Security number and paid taxes.

The second goal of the network is to establish a group of local bilingual local volunteers, known as migra (Spanish slang for immigration police) watch, who can respond quickly to serve as witnesses. When the Long Island Jobs with Justice hotline (516-387-4023) receives a report about ICE presence or activity, or an ICE arrest, watch members will be dispatched to check it out and observe for fairness.

“It’s to just be present and let the ICE officers know we’re watching,” Mr. Koubek said.

“Sometimes you may not be able to do anything, but you’re witness to what is happening,” Sister Margaret added.

“People are beginning to become much more aware of those possibilities, so that’s why rapid response or accompaniment is very important,” she said. “What’s wonderful is the number of people who want to be participants in this.”

Ultimately, Mr. Koubek said, the network will also reach out to local church congregations to determine whether they will offer temporary sanctuary for immigrants who fear ICE arrests. ICE will not enter places of worship, schools or hospitals, he explained.

Although federal law makes it illegal to harbor an undocumented immigrant, the Second Appellate Court has said that if authorities are notified of sanctuary status, it does not constitute as harboring, Mr. Koubek said.

Both Mr. Koubek and Sister Margaret noted that this effort is not meant to help people with criminal backgrounds or gangs.

The point, the sister said, is to help “the good people, of whom the majority are and have been here contributing,” she said.

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