Thousands of Lives Upended by Westchester’s Immigration Battles

Aida Pineda (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Elodia Juárez has lived in Westchester for over 30 years, but she admits that she had never seen the eyes of fear before. In the last few weeks, many of the people who come daily to her Juárez Mexican Restaurant – located in Mamaroneck, a quiet town, home to a large number of Guatemalans and Mexicans north of New York City – are not hiding their fear. Anxiety and uncertainty have been more present than ever before.

“People here are very scared that more immigration agents will arrive and destroy our families. Some are saying that they are carrying out operations up north, and that they have taken people even in train stations,” said the Mexico native. She added that, even though the rumors of a possible escalation in “la migra” raids spread quickly when Donald Trump settled in the White House, fear has now reached new heights in the streets of the county of 980,000 inhabitants. [The Hispanic population of the county is estimated to be about 250,00, with more than 40,000 of that number undocumented.]

A bill called “Immigrant Protection Act”– approved in August by the county’s legislature to prevent the police from performing immigration law enforcement activities – went nowhere. Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican, vetoed it in August. Although the initiative’s sponsors wanted to override the local executive’s authority and implement the law, they suffered a setback last week when they fell one vote short of overturning the veto: Of 17 legislators, only 11 voted in favor of rejecting Astorino’s opposition.

“This is incredibly worrying and sad. We feel that, without that law, immigrants in Westchester will be left unprotected, and many will even refrain from reporting crimes for fear of interacting with the police and be handed over to immigration,” said county legislator Virginia Pérez, who migrated from the Dominican Republic with her family as a child.

In an attempt to ease the tension, the county executive signed an executive order leaving it to the police’s discretion whether to ask about a residents’ immigration status, causing concern among legislators and activists.

“An executive order does not have the same weight as a law, and it can be repealed at any time, leaving the door open for police officers to ask about [immigration] status,” said Pérez. “Astorino vetoed our law out of his fear of losing federal funds for refusing to help immigration authorities, and saying that it would encourage criminals such as the MS-13 gang to come to take refuge here. However, that is not true. Our law does not protect criminals or people who violate the law; it protects working families, and we do not want police resources to be used to carry out immigration activities.”

Guatemalan-born Aida Pineda, who works as a cook in the Los Primos bodega, said (…): “We are very scared. There are people who don’t even want to go out anymore because they have taken many Guatemalans, but necessity forces us to come out to go to work,” she said. “Now, all we have is God’s will.”

Amaris Velásquez – who came from San Marcos, Guatemala, two years ago and has since lived in Westchester – said: (…) “We hope that they do not start taking us from now on… For now I feel safe, but I feel that things could get worse later on,” said the mother of two, who has spoken to a relative who is a permanent resident to take care of her children until they are able to reunite with her if she is detained. “We would have to start over with the four-year-old, whom I brought from ‘Guate,’ and with the two-year-old, who was born here, but it would be very tough,” she added.

State Senator George Latimer, who is running to unseat Astorino from the county executive position, said that, since Trump was elected president, hate crimes have increased in the county, and that the failure to approve the Immigrant Protection Act leaves a dangerous door open that may lead to a rise in cases of mistreatment and abuse against immigrants.

“I believe that the job of the police when talking to the victim or witness of a crime is to ask them questions relevant to the crime and what they saw, not if they are from here or what immigration status they have,” said the Democrat. “Astorino says that we are less safe if the police fails to ask that question but, to me, that is a ridiculous statement made to appeal to the conservative base formed by many of his voters, who hold anti-immigrant views.”

Latimer added that, if elected county executive, he will sign the Immigrant Protection Act into law. (…) “Westchester has a tradition of tolerance and of welcoming people, but there are always individuals who have hateful attitudes or make anti-immigrant comments,” he said. “What one expects to see is the local government identifying those people and pressing charges because, if these acts go unpunished, the aggressors feel supported and they will escalate [their attacks.]” (…)

Jirandy Martínez, executive director of the Community Resource Center in Westchester, said that the federal government’s policies and the lack of commitment of the local administration have increased the anxiety felt by undocumented people living in the county, to the point that they have created a WhatsApp group to communicate if anyone sees an operation or a threat from ICE and protect each other.

“Previously-planned detentions have been confirmed in New Rochelle and the north of the state. A mother and her daughter who were attending their appointments were detained, and that made many people not want to go to their own appointments,” said the activist, adding that hate acts are also on the rise in the county. “There are areas that greatly support immigrants, but we have seen many hate crimes in other areas, and that is why we are forming support groups to find solutions and protect ourselves, and to understand that we all have rights.”

Mexican-born Víctor Arriaga, father to an eight-year-old girl and a seven-year-old boy born in Westchester, said that fear is so great that his own children are in constant stress, particularly since the Immigrant Protection Act was vetoed.

“We feel insecure going to work, going in the street, and we are scared to report to the police if we are victims of a crime because we don’t know how doing so will affect us,” said Arriaga, who works as a waiter in a restaurant in Yonkers.

“Many people here already see us as a plague. My youngest son was even bullied in school. They told him he was the son of immigrants, that he was not like the others, and he was attacked without reason until his teacher solved the problem… Hatred has grown. You can feel it on the bus that the looks are different. They look at many of us as if we were outcasts,” he said.

A half hour away, in White Plains – Westchester’s county seat and a commercial center – Mexican-born Rosalina Tapia asked her county’s government to approve more measures to protect immigrants.

“We are good people. I am terrified to think that now the police will start asking for papers if they want to, because that will make us live in terror,” she said as she waited for the bus with her husband.

Asked about the concerns expressed by the immigrant community regarding his halt of the protection act, Astorino said that the law puts public safety at risk and that it threatens to cause the federal government to cut funds because the law would turn Westchester into a sanctuary county. (…)

“Westchester will always value and support its immigrant community. However, the proposed legislation was irresponsible, as reflected by the overwhelming opposition from Westchester law enforcement community, as well as the Legal Aid Society.”

(…)

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