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'Everyone is terrified of ICE'

Uneasiness grows after locals are among 82 arrested downstate

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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested 82 people in New York City, Long Island and the Hudson Valley, including individuals from Glen Cove and Bayville, during a five-day period ending Sept. 25.

Thomas Deckern, an ICE field office director, said in a news release that more than half of those arrested were released from local custody despite requests by ICE to hold them, known as detainers. ICE did not respond to the Herald’s questions about how many people from Glen Cove were arrested, and what had happened to them.

Deckern explained that New York City’s sanctuary status, which allows police departments to refuse to cooperate with ICE, allowed 42 arrested individuals to avoid being transferred to ICE custody. Because detainers are not warrants or issued by judges, municipalities can decide whether to hold an undocumented individual until ICE officers arrive.

Glen Cove Police Chief William Whitton said that the department cooperates with the agency when an arrest warrant is presented and verified, but does not detain people and hold them for ICE. He added that while ICE would normally contact the GCPD whenever the agency was working in the city, the fact that he received no word from ICE about the recent arrests made him skeptical that any of them took place there.

Nelson Melgar, of Glen Cove, said he was troubled by the arrests. He is a so-called “Dreamer,” having been brought to the U.S. illegally as a child, but protected from deportation by President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, enacted in August 2012. Melgar explained that whenever someone from Glen Cove is arrested, the city’s immigrant community becomes frightened and distrustful of government and police.

“Everyone is terrified of ICE,” Melgar said. “They’re a terror group. That’s how we see them.”

While ICE had previously prioritized detaining undocumented immigrants who “posed a threat to national security and public safety,” the agency that oversees it, the Department of Homeland Security, was ordered in 2017 by President Trump to change its policy, and since then it has not exempted any undocumented immigrants. Criminal infractions fit for deportation can now range from serious offenses to those as relatively minor as failing to use a turn signal. 

Last year, the Herald Gazette spoke with an Oyster Bay resident named Carmen, who shared her story about a confrontation with law enforcement. Carmen, who asked to be identified only by her first name out of concerns for her safety, said she had been touring college open houses in upstate New York with her daughter when an officer stopped them on the highway for failing to give him enough clearance on the shoulder under the move-over law. Carmen handed over documents that included her expired Temporary Protected Status driver’s license.

“I told him up front that it was expired, but that my renewal had already been approved and I was just waiting for the new license to come,” Carmen explained. TPS is a nearly 30-year-old program that grants legal status to immigrants who fled countries devastated by conflict or natural disasters. But the officer did not care about Carmen’s story, she said, and told her he would report her to ICE. Although she remained calm, she said, her daughter began to cry. The officer eventually left, having given her a ticket for the traffic violation. Had she been undocumented, the officer could have detained her and transferred her to ICE.

“I was able to keep my cool, because I knew I was safe,” Carmen said. “But how many of us can do that?”

Melgar said that stories like this one “spread like wildfire” in the immigrant community. Alberto Munera, executive director of La Fuerza Unida Inc., in Glen Cove, agreed that fear was growing in the immigrant community. While his organization provides immigration services and educational classes to the local community, Munera said that he has gotten several request from undocumented residents to chaperone them whenever they visit police headquarters to report a crime or go to the city court office to pay a ticket or fine. “They’re afraid that if they go alone,” he said, “they might be taken by ICE.”

Whitton said that all residents of Glen Cove should feel safe when reporting a crime. The GCPD held a number of meetings with the immigrant community last year with the help of local churches that serve the Spanish-speaking population. He added that GCPD officers do not ask about the immigration status of a person who reports a crime or agrees to act as a witness. “Not one person who has come to us has an example where we betrayed that trust,” Whitton said. “No one should be afraid to talk with us.”

But Melgar said that as long as the GCPD works with ICE, undocumented immigrants would continue to be wary of the police. “I’m afraid to even go to the National Night Out event,” Melgar said, referring to an annual event whose purpose is to build trust between police officers and residents. “How can we collaborate with you when you collaborate with ICE?”