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Suffolk County lawmakers, advocates gear up for legal fight over housing migrants

Legislature Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) wants Suffolk County to explore legal avenues to stop Governor Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams from sending migrants to hotels in the county.
Suffolk County Legislature
Legislature Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) wants Suffolk County to explore legal avenues to stop Governor Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams from sending migrants to hotels in the county.

Suffolk County lawmakers will be in session Tuesday to hire an outside attorney to explore blocking New York City from sending migrants to hotels in the county.

“New York City made the conscious decision to call itself a sanctuary city,” Legislature Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) said during a press conference on Sunday. “Suffolk County did not.”

Now, both Suffolk County lawmakers and advocates are gearing up for a legal fight over allowing migrants to stay temporarily in the county. Meanwhile, OLA of Eastern Long Island is considering legal action against what they called an illegal executive order by Riverhead’s town supervisor.

McCaffrey and majority Republicans said Suffolk will be the latest county in the state to push back as the city looks to care for hundreds of asylum seekers daily.

“Several counties throughout the state have commenced litigation and successfully obtained temporary restraining orders. Our county executive has not signaled that he is prepared to take those actions,” he said.

“The public has every right to be angry about the policy failures that led to this crisis but I urge everyone not to direct that rightful frustration at the families who are coming from desperate circumstances and legally seeking asylum,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone replied in a statement.

The Democrat called for the issue to be dealt with in a "fiscally responsible and humane way."

The announcement on Sunday was interrupted by outbursts from residents who warn the county is discriminating against migrants from the southern border. The New York Civil Liberties Union has already filed a federal lawsuit against Rockland and Orange counties for barring migrants who chose to relocate from New York City.

McCaffrey argued their decision is “not an anti-immigration stance.” Advocacy groups blasted the Republican leader for making the announcement “undercover of a Sunday.”

“You didn’t issue a statement against Ukraine asylum seekers, but you issued a statement against immigrants of color,” said Pilar Moya, executive director of Housing Help in Greenlawn.

In response, a spokesperson for New York City Mayor Eric Adams said “counties, cities and towns across the state need to do their part as well, especially when New York City is willing to pay for shelter, food,= and more.”

Neither Suffolk or Nassau counties have been asked to take in migrants, they added.

McCaffrey claims the city has been reaching out directly to hotels on Long Island, and warns their presence could burden public safety, schools and other county services.

Efforts to block migrants

Hiring an outside attorney would help Suffolk County explore options, such as barring private hotels in the county from accepting migrants, and preventing those who seek federal asylum from being relocated to locally run facilities.

It is unlikely that a temporary restraining order would apply to state and federal facilities.

“We here in Suffolk County are 2,000 miles from the southern border but we are to become a border county because of the Biden administration’s failed border policies and the sanctuary city policies of New York City, which attempts to become a magnet drawing people across that southern border,” U.S. Rep. Nick LaLota (R-NY) said. “Predictably, their resources have now become overrun.”

New York Governor Kathy Hochul directed all state agencies to look for space to house migrants, including SUNY campuses until students need the space. She has also asked the Biden administration to direct the Department of Defense and the National Park Service to immediately build and operate temporary shelters on federal lands, especially at military installations across the Northeast.

Hochul joined Mayor Adams on Monday to call on the Biden administration to expedite authorization for asylum seekers to be able to join the workforce. “They're eager to work. They want to work. They came here in search of work and a new future, and they can become part of our economy and part of our communities,” Hochul said. “Get them shelter. Get them food. Get them legal services. And then help them get to work.”

Last week, Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman also said he has no interest in housing migrants.

In addition, a bill called the “New York Combating Alien Recidivism and End Sanctuary,” known as the NY-CARES Act, would prohibit local governments from adopting laws or policies, which impede or interfere with the enforcement of federal immigration laws, including sanctuary cities. “We pass laws for a reason and that reason is to keep our citizens and our communities safe. Prohibiting local law enforcement from enforcing laws and working with their federal partners does just the opposite,” said state Senator Dean Murray (R- Patchogue), who introduced the measure.

Legal recourse

On eastern Long Island, Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar declared an emergency in order to stop its shelters and local hotels from accepting migrants.

She said the order was a preventative measure to make sure the town’s homeless are not displaced to make room for incoming migrants.

“This is a federal issue,” Aguiar said. “This is a New York City issue. If the mayor of New York City accepted these individuals, he shouldn't be sending them to towns that he knows nothing about.”

Advocates for Latino immigrants are now questioning the legality of her order.

“This is dangerous when you're taking away the right for private businesses to do their business,” Minerva Perez, OLA’s executive director, said.

In a legal memo, the group says executive orders are very specific documents that require clear definitions of disasters or emergencies, with specific timelines, and can’t be based on speculation.

“This was based on a rumor that somebody heard from someone's talk show. And based on that there was an executive order enacted. That is absolutely the most inflammatory, unsafe way to handle leadership at a town level,” she said.

Perez calls it a “fable” that bus loads of migrants would arrive in Riverhead. So far only one migrant family checked into a Riverhead motel. According to Perez, it was a mother and a child who were relocated to western Suffolk after the town called and threatened the motel owner.

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.
A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.