Challenging. Extremely nuanced. And very, very complicated.
The city’s recently formed Human Rights Task Force hosted a Town Hall at Skidmore College on a stormy Monday evening regarding the impact of immigration in Saratoga Springs. The moderated panel discussion included regional business owners, an attorney specializing in immigration employment matters relating and local and state community leaders and representatives.
The prevailing sentiment of the informational meeting – which was attended by about 175 people and included an audience Q&A session – is that even as Saratoga Springs strives to be “a welcoming and all-inclusive community,” there are limits to what the city can do regarding immigrant workers – both documented and undocumented - given that federal laws supersede local ones.
“What we have done is everything we can do,” said city Mayor Joanne Yepsen. “This is a federal agency. This is The White House. And we don’t have legal grounds.”
Earlier this year, the mayor founded a city Human Rights Task Force – which focuses mostly on education, programming such as Monday’s event, and providing referrals to local agencies that can assist in immigration issues. In March, city Police Chief Greg Veitch said while the department will work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or I.C.E. if asked, local police will not detain anyone solely for a civil violation of federal immigration laws.
In June, federal agents conducted two separate operations in Saratoga Springs, arresting a total of 26 “unlawfully present foreign nationals,” according to the agency.
In recent months, two city based churches stepped forward with a sanctuary pledge for undocumented immigrants who are targets of deportation. I.C.E. typically operates under guidelines that recognize places like churches and schools as sensitive locations where agents would not normally carry out enforcement actions. However, there are no guarantees.
“Designating oneself as a ‘sanctuary’ doesn’t mean that people without immigration status are immune from federal law,” notes attorney Brendan Venter, an immigrant specialist with the Whiteman Osterman & Hanna firm in Albany.
More than 11 countries are represented on the backstretch said Task Force member Diane Barnes said Monday, adding that besides the racecourse, high-profile employers such as Skidmore College and Global Foundries also employ a good number of immigrants.
Panelist and local business owner Patrick Pipino spoke about the large immigrant work force in the food and restaurant business. “Good people. Hard working people. Why Saratoga? I think it’s easy to pick off people because we’re a high-profile community, and in my opinion there’s a new sheriff in town and he wants to show he’s tough on immigration.” Business owners are required to turn over employment records to federal authorities when asked and when they arrive with warrant in hand. Those detained are held locally in Albany for only a couple of days before being sent to federal detention in Buffalo, which makes timeliness of representation difficult where they can plead their case.
One resource available to anyone with immigration questions is at the New York State Office for New Americans, which is funded by Catholic Charities and offers resources in 200 different languages.
“First it will help refer you to an organization that will provide assistance on any immigrant-related questions. It’s all free and confidential,” New York Department of State’s Laura González-Murphy - who directs the New York State Office for New Americans - said Monday night. “We’re also going to be using that as a resource to connect with legal assistance, for an attorney.” The agency can be reached by phone at 1-800-566-7636. “People who know an immigrant can call, immigrants themselves can call. It’s for anyone who needs assistance,” she said.
“I think there is a humanitarian effort to this, because families are being broken apart in ways we haven’t seen before,” Yepsen said.