On Thursday, February 21, Hamilton Mayor Robert McVaugh invited members of the Hamilton community to discuss and voice opinions on the treatment of refugees and immigrants living in Hamilton.
The discussion took place during a regular monthly meeting of the Hamilton Board of Trustees, where Mayor McVaugh and other board members started reviewing the statement on local immigration enforcement released by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
The document in question, “Guidance Concerning Local Authority Participation in Immigration Enforcement and Model Sanctuary Provisions,” contains details on the proper legal participation of local authorities in immigration enforcement and models what refugee “sanctuaries” would look like under local law enforcement. Some of those measures included recommendations that local law enforcement agencies limit the collection of immigration-related information, and should not engage in certain activities solely for the purpose of enforcing federal immigration laws.
Hamilton Police Chief Shawn Stassi, who attended the meeting to answer questions about the document, offered a more straightforward description of how local law enforcement practices already adhere to Schneiderman’s guidance.
Legal status, Stassi said, would not come up in misdemeanor arrests or regular interactions with the police. Stassi recounted the four arrests in which citizenship status has come up in his career – the first made against a man charged with domestic violence, and the other made against three men charged for drug trafficking and trafficking in sex trade, who also had prior deportation history.
“My stance is pretty much that [legal status] is only going to come up in the instance of an actual crime,” Stassi said. “If somebody throws a piece of litter on the ground, it’s not, ‘where are your papers?’”
Stassi faced some pushback from members of the community, who expressed views overwhelmingly in support of protecting refugees and undocumented immigrants. Philip Uninsky, a local attorney, expressed concern about the types of arrests that usually happen in Hamilton leading to potential reports of undocumented immigrants.
“I’m concerned about what the lower threshold is, DUI, hit-and- run – the types of things that do happen in the Village of Hamilton – public drunkenness, disorderly conduct. My belief is that no amount of lower stuff should lead to reporting undocumented people,” Uninsky said.
Stassi acknowledged that much of police conduct is discretionary, but that the practices of the Hamilton Police Department rarely result in reporting undocumented immigrants.
While Stassi pointed out that immigration and refugee issues are not as prevalent in Hamilton as perhaps they are in bigger cities, some community members disagreed. Former Colgate professor Melissa Kagle recalled an incident a few years ago in which an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer showed up at her home in Hamilton and began questioning her about the status of an international student at Colgate, who she said had no criminal charges or interactions with the police in his history. Kagle recounted her interaction with the ICE officer.
“He was aggressive, he was insistent, I didn’t know my rights,” Kagle said. “I didn’t know that dealing with ICE would be an issue for me as an American citizen.”
Kagle suggested that informing the community, perhaps in some sort of “know your rights” campaign, would be helpful in dealing with such encounters in the future.
“This idea that it doesn’t happen here, or it only happens in certain situations, isn’t true. Anybody can call ICE,” Kagle said.
She added that it had been a Colgate Campus Safety officer who called ICE about the student and gave ICE Kagle’s home address.
Senior Michael Hogg echoed Kagle’s insistence that the issue is especially relevant to Colgate.
“If an issue regarding immigration were to arise in Hamilton, it would almost certainly involve a Colgate student or faculty member,” Hogg said. “I would assume not many foreign nationals pass through Hamilton unless they’re affiliated with the university.”
Since President Trump’s executive order temporarily banning immigration from select nations, the Colgate administration and student government has stood up in support of members of the community who could potentially be affected by the order.
Speaker of the Colgate Senate, sophomore Jenny Lundt, said that the relevance of the issue should not be ignored.
“We are a community of people from all around the world and it’s important to me – and should be to everyone else too – that we are caring about people that could be affected,” Lundt said.
Senior Diavee Chowdhury, who was also in attendance at Thursday night’s meeting, said the support of the village community came as a surprise to him.
“It was absolutely not what I expected. The overall atmosphere there was very pro-immigrant, which was not what I thought it would be at all,” said Chowdhury, who is also an immigrant from Bangladesh here legally, but who nonetheless feels the issue is relevant to him.
McVaugh stressed the Board’s intention to further consider the practices of local law enforcement. When reviewing each of the measures laid out in Schneiderman’s guidance, McVaugh and the Board seemed to be in support of all of them, but said they would actively review them between now and the next meeting.
Until then, Hamilton’s law enforcement practices will likely continue as they have been, rarely reporting information about individuals’ legal status unless those cases move beyond Hamilton’s jurisdiction, to county jails, for example.
“I don’t anticipate a new village policy regarding when officers inquire about legal status would have any substantial effect,” Hogg said. “But it could put people’s minds at ease.”