Not since the Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) roundups in Greenport a decade ago have business owners on Shelter Island and their immigrant employees expressed such nervousness and, in some cases, fear.
That’s according to Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate. She and local employers and immigrant employees have termed the present situation “dire.”
Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, in a pair of memos released two weeks ago, described new immigration guidelines that will “no longer … exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”
In addition, President Donald Trump has plans to hire 10,000 more ICE officers. Secretary Kelly has told Congress he plans to process the hiring “as fast as we can.”
“I do believe that priority should be on the individuals who are the worst offenders of our laws and way of life’” said Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) in a statement, calling on agents to focus on serious offenders and not on generally law abiding individuals.
He advises that individuals not legally in our country should be prepared for the enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws. And he warned undocumented immigrants to avoid violating any other laws.
Employees, whether documented or not, fear mass deportations or being hassled by federal agents, Sister Margaret said.
Some business owners say they’re worried they’ll have to cease their operations if they lose an immigrant labor force, the advocate said, since the employers say they’ll be unable to find American citizens willing to take manual labor jobs.
On Shelter Island, there has long been a dependence on immigrant labor working for landscapers, contractors, and as restaurant employees and housekeepers. While a few live on the Island, most immigrant workers here commute from Greenport.
Some came to the United States on temporary work visas for a season but stayed to make a life here for themselves and their families, Sister Margaret said. Some have children born here who are American citizens and have never known a life in their parents’ home countries.
Voices of Immigration
“I agree with Donald Trump when he says to kick out all the criminals,” one female immigrant worker told the Reporter, requesting anonymity. “But I work hard every day, sometimes seven days a week and there’s no way he can call me a criminal.”
“We come to the United States because we want to have a better life,” she added. “We work, we pay taxes because it’s the rule in the United States. It’s not fair the way Trump is talking because he calls everybody criminals.”
She came here at 15, led by a coyote — a person who, for thousands of dollars, leads immigrants to areas where they can cross the Mexican border into the U.S.
But it’s no easy journey, she said. She’s not Mexican, but from another Latin American country and recalls the trip across Mexico as treacherous, with some who make a living stealing from and otherwise taking advantage of the would-be immigrants. Despite paying a handsome sum to a coyote, no immigrant can be confident he or she won’t be led into a trap.
But the travelers, she said, endure the risks en route because of the dangers back home where there is little or no chance of a better life.
One Shelter Island employer —who requested anonymity to speak with the Reporter — worries about losing workers. “I wouldn’t have a business without them,” she said. “We’ve tried using Americans, college kids who say they want to work. Those kids aren’t interested. They don’t want to do menial work.”
She and other employers won’t put money into building their businesses now, she said, without knowing if they’ll have a business by next year. “We think if they have to go, maybe we should go with them, take what money we’ve made and invest in their countries,” the employer said. “Without them, we don’t have a business.”
Those without criminal records who spend money here, should stay, the employer said. “It’s just so unfair to threaten them and cause such fear,” she added. “And their children who were born here — are they going to be separated from their children?”
“Gang members gotta go,” another employer said, “but you can’t constantly threaten everybody, come in like a bulldozer. But he [the president] doesn’t seem to care.”
Even without major roundups in the area, an employer said workers are afraid to wait at bus stops for transportation or at places like supermarkets or a 7-Eleven where they fear ICE agents will try to pick them up. She described workers shipping home 90 percent of their belongings and living out of suitcases.
“They’re terrified and we’re terrified,” an employer said. “There has to be a way to differentiate” between those who are criminals and those who are just trying to earn an honest living, she added.
Keeping the books
One Island company has been employing immigrants since the 1990s with many original employees still working there. Many have legal status, but some don’t in what has come to be known among employers as a “dishonest honor system” where undocumented immigrants can obtain Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITIN) that employers use to file withholding taxes. The system was originally established for temporary employees, such as visiting professors.
The money is placed in an “Earnings Suspense Fund” meant to be matched over time with the identities of workers. The fund held $595 billion dollars 10 years ago. It ballooned to $1.2 trillion by 2014, the latest total available, according to the federal Office of the Inspector General.
When the ITIN is linked to an undocumented immigrant, an employer is told no more money can be withheld from that employee’s paycheck. But by then, the immigrant has likely moved and secured a new ITIN and the process begins anew.
The latest crackdown — at least on the East End of Long Island — has been for specific people, not general roundups, according to Sister Margaret. ICE is looking for immigrants who have been previously deported but found their way back here or those accused of felonies here who are out of the legal system, at least temporarily.
“It seems to be controlled,” Sister Margaret said about the local arrests. “But of course we can never trust that.”
Volunteers assist Sister Margaret with creation of identification cards that say “Alliance of Citizens and Immigrants.” They carry pictures, but no country. The cards have Sister Margaret’s contact information at the bottom.
Another step some immigrants with children are taking is setting up a system of custody for their children in case parents are taken without warning.
“It’s a terrible way to live,” Sister Margaret said.
This is the second in a three-part series on immigration.