On Sept. 15, a “call to rally” was shared across Long Island, N.Y., liberal and progressive Facebook pages. Republican U.S. Congressman Lee Zeldin and U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte held a round-table forum on immigration.They invited the family of MS-13 victims, and various law enforcement officials. But they didn’t invite immigrants or immigrant advocates.

The call to rally came from Long Island Jobs with Justice, which despite extensive work with immigrants had not been invited or even notified of this event. In fact, this “round-table” discussion on immigration excluded any civic group actually working with immigrants. The only civic group invited was the anti-immigrant Concerned Citizens of Hampton Bays. Additionally, no one from the public was allowed into the discussion. Only permitted were media who had pre-reserved space.

Law and order theme

The Sept. 17 forum had a law-and-order theme, further aligning Zeldin with Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. In addition to Zelden and Goodlatte, others hosting the discussion were representatives from the FBI, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini, Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon, the family of Justin Llivicura, who was killed by MS-13, and Long Island Farm Bureau. The agenda contained three presentations on MS-13 gang violence and drug trafficking on Long Island, and one from the parents of a victim of MS-13, and a presentation by the Farm Bureau on “guest workers” challenges.

Forum was racist and exclusionary

On Sept. 17, diverse groups like Neighbors in Support of Immigrants, Progressive East End Reformers, OLA of Eastern Long Island, Suffolk County Redneck Revolt, students from Suffolk County Community College, immigrants, and other concerned individuals joined Long Island Jobs with Justice outside the Montaukett Learning Resource Center where the meeting was being held to expose the racist and exclusionary nature of the forum.

“Not a single group that serves immigrants was invited,” Long Island Jobs with Justice community outreach coordinator and protest organizer Richard Koubek said. “The only people invited were the media, which makes this a clear campaign stunt.”

Many protesters saw the meeting as an extension of Donald Trump’s efforts to criminalize all immigrants. This vilification contradicts reality. According to a study from the Cato Institute, the arrest rate in 2015 for undocumented immigrants in Texas was 40 percent below that of native-born Americans and the arrest rate for all immigrants and documented immigrants was 65 percent and 81 percent below that of native-born Americans, respectively.

Police try to move protesters

Police guard entrance to the forum. | Liberation photo: Kevin Salvatore.

Police tried to herd the protesters to a more distant location, but they refused to move. A few were able to enter the building and stand outside the closed room where the forum was taking place, protected by an armed police guard. This was tax payer-funded public property.

Physically prevented from asking their congressman questions, constituents of Suffolk County held their own  impromptu forum outside. They wanted to know why a private meeting was being held on public property? Why were civic groups that work with immigrants excluded? Why were no immigrants or representatives of immigrants invited to this forum? Why were they being told to move to the entrance of the campus?

Immigrants are victimized by hate crimes, gangs and police

Some  500,000 immigrants live on Long Island, making up 17 percent of the total population. The largest group is from El Salvador. This is a vulnerable population, victimized by hate crimes, gangs and the police.

There wasn’t any scheduled presentation on police collaboration with ICE, nor was there any scheduled presentation addressing ICE’s dishonest and improper practice of gaining access to houses through administrative instead of judicial warrants. There was nothing on the schedule about how immigrants are afraid to access public services they are entitled to out of fear of being kidnapped and deported by ICE.

There was no mention of the U.S. government’s backing of repressive governments and death squads in El Salvador, Haiti, Guatemala, and Mexico, which  caused people to flee to the U.S. There was, of course, no discussion on the excessive rhetoric that inflates the presence and power of MS-13 on Long Island to almost mythical proportions. There was no mention of refugees. Immigrants were labeled only as “gang members” or “guest workers,” a racist framing that protesters found unacceptable.

While Zeldin’s constituents waited outside to ask him questions, he and Police Commissioner Hart snuck out a back entrance.

“By shutting out the voices of immigrant advocates, the congressman’s office demonstrated just how little respect they have for community input and dialogue,” said Irma Solis, director of the Suffolk chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Without immigrant perspectives this so-called round-table was nothing more than a feedback loop of anti-immigrant sentiment.”