When the question was raised at a recent Gardiner Town Board meeting whether the town should adopt a resolution similar to the one declaring the Town of New Paltz a “sanctuary town,” reaction was mixed. Although several council members wanted to follow suit, a few residents in the audience expressed qualms about accepting refugees into the community, questioning whether the vetting process was rigorous enough to screen out potential terrorists.
So the motion was tabled until an educational forum could be organized to air the issue and test local sentiment. That community forum was held at a packed town hall last Friday evening; and as it turned out, the panelists were preaching to the choir, drawing general applause after their remarks. A list of discussion guidelines intended to defuse potential shouting matches proved unnecessary. During the question-and-answer period that followed, not one of the residents who turned out expressed opposition to making Gardiner a more welcoming place for immigrants.
Moderator Carolyn Keith introduced the speakers: Town of New Paltz Deputy Supervisor Daniel Torres; Ilgu Ozler, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations at SUNY-New Paltz; Andrea Callan, program director at the Workers’ Justice Center; immigration lawyer Miryam Antuñez de Mayolo; and Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum. Torres kicked off the discussion by explaining the history and legal reasoning behind his sponsorship of the New Paltz resolution. Citing the town’s long tradition of being a haven for refugees, going back to its founding by the Huguenots, Torres said, “We already had a policy. We needed a local law.” The impetus came with the new presidential administration’s more aggressive policies toward deportation, he added, when “A high school student asked me if her mother is safe.”
Professor Ozler — a native of Turkey, which she said is currently hosting three million Syrian refugees — told a personal anecdote about visiting her homeland on a mission for Amnesty International. In a valley where abandoned squatter homes were being converted into luxury apartments, she saw a child only four years old, “trying to extract metal from concrete” to sell to help feed his family. “He looked so tired and so beaten down,” she said.
The boy’s face haunted her, and upon her return to the US, Ozler helped found the Mid-Hudson Refugee Alliance to work with the Church World Service to “create conditions of resettlement” for people like him, fleeing violence and oppression in their countries of origin. She discussed the efforts of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees to cope with the basic needs of the 14 million refugees currently in the world, noting that the organization is “having a hard time even feeding them.” The US was on track to take in up to 110,000 refugees in 2017, she said, but the Trump administration intends to cut that number in half.
Andrea Callan spoke about the concerns about deportation currently afflicting her migrant-worker client base. “There are many families of mixed status,” she said. “They’re presenting a lot of fear because of the rhetoric of the presidential campaign.” As a result, she said, victims of domestic violence and human trafficking are not reporting these crimes out of fear of the police. Emphasizing repeatedly that “It’s not a crime to remain in the US without documentation,” Callan argued that the lines between civil and criminal enforcement had become muddled under the Immigration Code of 1996. She said that laws originally designed to identify and expel violent criminals — “people who are threats to public safety and national security” — are now being used to deport people for minor offenses like smoking marijuana, or even “being charged with crimes and not convicted,” with the rate of immigration arrests in 2017 up 37.6 percent over the same period last year.
Miryam Antuñez de Mayolo agreed that there had been an “avalanche” of applications for citizenship since Trump was elected, but explained that the process of obtaining it is extremely difficult, costly and convoluted, and in most cases takes many years. While someone with a worker visa who has a million-dollar annual salary can get a green card in less than a year, the backlog on adjudicating family petitions for naturalization of Mexican immigrants currently dates back to June 1995, according to a chart that Antuñez shared with the audience. “For the Philippines, it’s even longer,” she pointed out. Even for refugees seeking asylum from politically dangerous situations, the vetting process is so complex and redundant that it takes anywhere from 18 months (for translators who assisted US intelligence or military) to five years, she said.
Sheriff Van Blarcum spoke very briefly, saying that he was there primarily to answer questions. He expressed reservations about “sanctuary city” resolutions like the one passed in New Paltz, arguing that they “put fear into people” unnecessarily. He claimed that “Law enforcement never asks people about their documentation status” unless they already know that the federal agency for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has an interest in that person. However, one audience member pointed out that anyone being booked for an arrest who admits being born outside the US, regardless of citizenship status, has that information reported to ICE. Torres recommended that the practice of asking country of origin be discontinued. He added that the New Paltz Police Department has had difficulty persuading witnesses to recent violent crimes to testify, for fear of deportation.
For more information, in both English and Spanish, about immigration and deportation issues, visit https://ulsterimmigrantdefensenetwork.org. The Ulster Immigrant Defense Network is also seeking donations to support its services, including establishing a helpline.