While Woodstock is not ready to commit to becoming a sanctuary community, Supervisor Bill McKenna and the Town Board say they are sensitive to the constant state of fear among the local undocumented population.
A group of concerned residents and business owners asked the Town Board at its July 18 business meeting to make the designation so that Woodstock, which, they feel, is tolerant and welcoming, can let people live and work without fear of having families torn apart.
The designation makes it a policy to limit cooperation with immigration authorities only to what is required by law.
“There is a moral imperative to speak out in defense of our community,” town resident Laura Kaplan said. She thinks a written ordinance rather than a sort of don’t ask, don’t tell approach creates a level of accountability and builds trust in the community.
Ellen Povill, who initially started the dialogue with the town, said the community needs to do whatever it can to “oppose and peacefully resist those criminally insane” in charge at the national level. Povill has distributed a petition that has already garnered more than 500 signatures requesting the sanctuary town status.
Many refugees have lost loved ones or left them behind as they fled oppressive regimes, she said. Now, families risk being split apart in this country.
Onteora School Board Vice President Laurie Osmond said undocumented parents live in constant fear of being separated from their children to the extent that many have made contingency plans for their care. “They’re terrified to go to school events or concerts,” she said, noting they’re afraid of what would happen if they get pulled over on their way to the school for meeting with a teacher.
Osmond said state education law is very strict when it comes to protection of children during the school day. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE officials are forbidden from entering schools and questioning children without parental consent. Further, schools do not turn over documentation to ICE officials, she said. She acknowledged the district can do more to communicate these restrictions to the students and parents.
“There’s a lack of clarity and that’s creating a fearful environment,” she said. “This sort of don’t ask, don’t tell thing will only go so far.”
Oriole9 business partner and manager Jessica Anna said the immigrant community is the “backbone of our restaurant,” pointing out their solid work ethic. Anna said having Woodstock become a sanctuary town would make that part of the community feel more comfortable and supported.
A false sense of security
McKenna said that he has not been a big supporter of becoming a sanctuary town because he doesn’t want to give people false hope. He has discussed the issue with Police Chief Clayton Keefe, who said as a matter of policy, the department does not ask about immigration status. Officers will issue a ticket at a traffic stop and send people on their way.
“That’s the way it’s been done for 30 years,” said McKenna, who added Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum has “indicated pretty much the same thing,” as well as the state police.
While the Woodstock Police Department is not concerned with immigration status, the supervisor or Town Board cannot dictate to officers who to arrest or not arrest, McKenna said. Also, the town has no control over various other law-enforcement agencies whose jurisdictions include Woodstock, such as the New York City Department of Environmental Protection Police, Ulster County Sheriff’s Office, the State Police or any federal agencies.
Still McKenna, who is the son of an immigrant and the father of an adopted child from Guatemala, said he is supportive of working together toward a solution. “We have a governor who is in no great hurry to help the guy down in Washington,” said McKenna. “We’re all allies, even if we differ on how to get to the goal.”
Councilman Richard Heppner said it is “rather sad” that towns need to have these discussions. “Frankly I think every town should be a sanctuary city.”
Councilman Jay Wenk proposed that the board vote with the proviso that if it fails, the town can form a committee to work on a solution. The matter failed to garner support because of concern that there was not enough information.
“I want to make sure we don’t hurt anyone while we’re helping,” Councilwoman Cathy Magarelli said.
To that point, Kerry Muldoon, McKenna’s secretary said the idea of a sanctuary community is not an easy issue for those involved. Some are worried it may draw unwanted attention to the town after it has escaped the radar of national authorities.
Muldoon has a son-in-law who is from El Salvador and is currently trying to become a U.S. citizen. “There isn’t a problem here right now because they do feel accepted here.”
Deputy Clerk Lynn Sehwerert, who lived in Venezuela for nearly two decades, said reaching out to the undocumented community means a lot. She said government is “very intimidating” to them because they ran from a government and they don’t understand how this one operates. Things like helping them with paperwork can go a long way. “They want to do the right thing. They just don’t know how.”
McKenna said he will put together a committee of seven to 10 people to work on a solution.