Posted on November 11, 2004

Hispanic Leaders Blast Levy

Bart Jones, Newsday (New York City), Nov. 10

The acting chairman of Steve Levy’s Hispanic Advisory Board has blasted the county executive’s proposal to “deputize” Suffolk County police and turn them into immigration agents as well, saying Levy never contacted Latino leaders about the idea and that his plan has “outraged” the community.

Levy “has set a tone of fear and mistrust among Latinos,” said Alexander Gutierrez, who heads the volunteer board. He added that Levy has turned the board “into political window dressing with no real voice.”

Levy fired back yesterday, saying his proposal has been vastly distorted and misunderstood, and that it is aimed at giving the police a specific tool to help prevent undocumented immigrants who commit crimes from fleeing to their homelands after posting bail.

“Right now they [critics] are commenting on some misconceptions out there,” Levy said. He added that news reports have created a false impression that Suffolk might have a “gestapo-like police department pulling them [immigrants] off the streets, checking their papers and deporting them.”

Levy says his plan is aimed at getting dangerous criminals off the streets and out of the country. He says deputization would give police extra powers to detain undocumented immigrants longer so they aren’t released on bail and flee — an assertion critics dispute. Levy says the plan would not affect undocumented immigrants who do not commit crimes.

He has floated the idea recently amid a campaign he is waging to crack down on unscrupulous contractors. Yet the proposal has provoked a wave of protest from pro-immigrant groups and the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association, whose head, Jeff Frayler, says the organization opposes it. Like other police department officials around the country, Frayler says deputization would make immigrants afraid to report crimes ranging from house burglaries to murder since they could think it would cause them to be deported.

Levy denied the charge, saying “no victims of crime will be asked to disclose their documented status.”

Despite his assurances, opposition to the proposal is mounting, with the Mexican Consulate in Manhattan registering its concerns. “Deputizing the local police force increases the chances of abuse of power by the authorities and poses a high risk of polarizing sensitive situations and xenophobic sentiments in Long Island, particularly in and around Farmingville,” Consul General Arturo Sarukhan wrote in a letter to Levy last week.

Just two law enforcement agencies in the United States — in southwest Florida and Alabama — have “deputized” officers. Deputization would essentially give police officers the same powers as federal immigration agents. It would allow them to more easily question people about their immigration status, detain them and help spur deportation proceedings.

Despite the vociferous criticism, Levy’s proposal also has its supporters. Legis. Allan Binder (R-Huntington) last week proposed transferring $500,000 in police overtime to pay to train officers as immigration agents. The proposal failed, but Binder says he will re-introduce it.

“Two thousand immigration agents in the country are not enough,” Binder said. “Training police officers as immigration agents will protect both workers and residents while protecting the Long Island economy from illegal activity.”

But pro-immigrant groups and law enforcement officials say police already have the power to arrest anyone who commits a crime, and if they are undocumented, to report them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation. They say that in the case of dangerous criminals who commit felonies, the system is in place and generally works. They also question where the county would house immigrants it detains while waiting for immigration authorities to deport them, and who would pay for it.

“There is no limitation in scope that would make this [deputization] acceptable,” said Nadia Marin-Molina of the Hempstead-based Workplace Project, an immigrant advocacy group. “Even if done on a small scale, the effect is the same: It scares the Latino immigrant community.”

Sister Margaret Smyth of the Hispanic Apostolate in Riverhead said that is already happening on the North Fork, where she informed parishioners of the proposal on Sunday. “You could feel the reaction,” she said. “People got nervous.”

She added that she and local immigrants helped police solve a murder case several years ago, tracking down the killer after he fled to North Carolina, but she doubts the immigrants would be so forthcoming now.

Levy said that even if he does implement the plan, it would be limited to a maximum of eight officers in a single precinct, and would be conducted on a pilot basis.

Gutierrez, who says he encouraged people to vote for Levy, is skeptical, although he and other board members will meet with the county executive today to hear him out. “This,” he said, “is a shocker.”