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The True Intent Behind Oyster Bay’s Day Laborer Ban

Day Laborers

With unrelenting attacks on immigrants coming from President Trump and his eager allies at the state and local level, it is more important than ever for our courts to be a bulwark against racism and xenophobia.

Just last month we saw why. A federal appeals court invalidated an Oyster Bay, Long Island ordinance that unconstitutionally targeted the immigrant community and violated their right to free speech.

In 2009, Oyster Bay banned day laborers, many of whom are Latino immigrants, from seeking work in public spaces. The law was supposedly enacted to make sidewalks and streets safer for pedestrians and traffic, but the town never demonstrated any actual safety problems.

The law banned things like “waving arms,” “making hand signals,” “waving signs” and “jumping up and down” throughout the streets, sidewalks and parks of the entire town. Under this scheme, kids flagging cars down for a charity fundraiser would be breaking the law. The policymakers pushing the law never worried about this, however, because the real target was clear – the town’s immigrant community.

Thankfully the law never had a chance to go into effect. The NYCLU, along with LatinoJustice PRLDEF, sued to stop it. We brought the challenge on behalf of two day laborer organizations, Centro de la Comunidad Hispana de Locust Valley and the Workplace Project, and argued the ban violated the right to free speech, due process, and equal protection.

Laws like this one, which seek to make life miserable for immigrants, were all the rage among certain states and municipalities in the late 2000s. Many were the brainchild of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Most have been struck down when challenged in court. But Kobach is still in a position to wreak havoc as the co-chair of President Trump’s Commission on Voter Integrity. Just as the Oyster Bay law was a thinly disguised attack on immigrants justified by imagined safety issues, the Commission comprises an attack on citizen voters of color premised on apocryphal tales of voter fraud.

The law banned things like “waving arms,”
 “making hand signals,” “waving signs” and “jumping up and down”

In ruling for the rights of Oyster Bay’s day laborers, the Second Circuit recited the maxim that courts “should not turn away if it appears that the stated interests are not the actual” motives for a law or government action. Especially in the era of Trump, this is a reminder to sharpen our stare rather than shut our eyes when neutral-sounding policies may obscure nefarious motives.

From the White House to Oyster Bay, white supremacy is hiding in plain view, if we are willing to see it. Indeed, in the wake of the court’s decision, Oyster Bay Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino immediately betrayed the law’s true motives when he told the media:

“I cannot understand why any court in this nation would allow illegal aliens to gather on residential streets seeking illegal work while avoiding paying taxes … Our neighborhoods will not become sanctuaries for illegal aliens under my watch.”

There was the exclusionary motive behind the law, spelled out for all to see.

If the town continues to defend the law in court, we will be there again to pull back the veneer and fight for the rights of all New Yorkers.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
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Civil Liberties Union