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Testimony: Regarding Suffolk County Introductory Resolution 1022, A Local Law To Prohibit The Obstruction Of County Roadways

Testimony Of Udi Ofer, Legislative Counsel, New York Civil Liberties Union before the Suffolk County Legislature regarding Introductory Resolution 1022, A Local Law To Prohibit The Obstruction Of County Roadways
March 6, 2007

Presiding Officer Lindsay and Members of the Suffolk County Legislature, I appear before you today on behalf of the New York Civil Liberties Union (“NYCLU”) and its 48,000 members statewide. Since 1951, the NYCLU has been the state’s leading advocate on behalf of New Yorkers’ civil rights and civil liberties.

I testify today in strong opposition to Introductory Resolution No. 1022 (“IR 1022”). The proposed legislation would create two new misdemeanor offenses in order to ban day laborers from seeking employment along county roadways. First, IR 1022 would make it unlawful for day laborers to loiter or stand along county roadways while unreasonably hindering the free passage of pedestrians or cars. Second, it would outlaw loitering or standing along county roadways for the purpose of attempting to solicit or sell any product or service to a vehicle occupant. Individuals violating these provisions would be subject to a $500 fine and a misdemeanor charge.

Lawmakers have described the proposed legislation as a way for Suffolk County to safeguard its roadways. Yet the proposed ordinance clearly has a much more ambitious, and divisive, motivation. It is driven by a desire to prevent day laborers — and what they represent to disgruntled county residents — from seeking work opportunities in Suffolk County. It criminalizes day laborers, who are often Latino, for doing nothing more than speaking about their need for work and their desire to support their families. Thus, it has rightfully been dubbed an attempt to criminalize “Standing While Latino.”

On Wednesday, January 24, 2007, Legislators Jack Eddington and Joseph Caracappa announced the introduction of the proposed ordinance. In the news release announcing IR 1022, the lawmakers explained, “For many years, tensions have been building in communities, such as Farmingville and Medford, over individuals soliciting employment on county roads….[P]eople are afraid to drive down [these roads] and stop at the stores because there are so many men just mulling around.” Legislator Caracappa told one newspaper, “It is common knowledge that [the] gathering of these men are restricting access and creating unsafe traffic conditions.” County Executive Steve Levy has described IR 1022 as legislation that would protect residents “who do not want to see their neighborhoods turned upside down.”

As my testimony below will make clear, the above statements are based on sentiments unsupported by facts, and which have no place in the halls of government as they only fuel the proliferation of anti-immigrant and anti-Latino attitudes.

The Suffolk County Legislature should reject IR 1022 for the following reasons: (1) Introductory Resolution 1022 scapegoats Latino day laborers as the source of the County’s public safety problems, without providing evidence to support these allegations, and fuels the growth of anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiments locally and nationally; and (2) Introductory Resolution 1022 is unconstitutional as it unduly infringes on Suffolk residents’ First Amendment rights.

Introductory Resolution 1022 Unfairly Scapegoats Immigrants And Latinos

A troubling pattern has emerged in Suffolk County over the past few years. Time and time again, Suffolk lawmakers have introduced legislation that blames immigrants and Latinos for the County’s economic and social problems, without providing evidence to support these allegations.

In keeping with the County’s now infamous track record, Legislators Caracappa and Eddington have introduced yet another proposal, this time aimed at stifling the economic opportunities available to immigrant and Latino workers with the hope that it will expose them to legal jeopardy and make them disappear from the County.

The proposal before the Legislature today is one of the harshest that the County has seen as it seeks to prevent people from putting food on their table. It will have disastrous consequences on the lives of Suffolk residents, as without a means to solicit employment, day laborers will be unable to support their families. Children will go hungry. Suffolk residents will be unable to find work and contribute to the local economy.

Support for IR 1022 is not driven by a desire to secure our roads. Suffolk County has simply failed to produce evidence to support its position that banning day laborers from county roadways would improve public safety. In fact, Suffolk police officials have said that they do not have statistics on the number of accidents associated with day laborers soliciting jobs on county roadways. Moreover, lawmakers and police officials have yet to explain why current road safety laws — such as New York State’s Vehicle and Traffic Laws — are inadequate to safeguard the County’s roadways.

If Suffolk County was serious about road safety, then it would have first commissioned a study to determine whether accidents associated with day laborers seeking employment on county roadways is higher than the proportion of accidents associated with other activities, such as riding a bicycle, speeding on a county roadway, or congregating along a road outside of a shopping mall.

The failure by Suffolk County policymakers to produce evidence to support their divisive allegations against day laborers leads reasonable people to believe that other motivations are driving this debate. These other motivations, unfortunately, appear to be based on anti-Latino and anti-immigrant sentiments. “Road safety” is simply a smoke screen for the real motivations behind this mean-spirited legislation — to target Latino day laborers who are trying to make a decent living and put food on the table for themselves and their families.

While Legislators Caracappa and Eddington have co-sponsored this legislation, it is County Executive Levy who has made a national reputation for himself by blaming immigrants for Suffolk County’s social ills. He has proclaimed that immigrants drive up the cost of schools, hospitals, and police, and has defended IR 1022 as legislation that would protect residents “who do not want to see their neighborhoods turned upside down.” He told one Long Island newspaper, “Day labor congregating has done damage to our single-family neighborhoods.” He believes that the federal government has failed to address the problem of illegal immigration, and therefore he supports local legislation to “chip away at the problem.”

In all of his rhetoric, Mr. Levy fails to inform his constituents about the contributions by immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, of millions of dollars a year into the Suffolk County economy. Documented and undocumented immigrants pay taxes with every purchase they make. Many undocumented immigrants file federal income taxes. Many contribute to the social security system without ever benefiting from it. And under federal law, undocumented immigrants are ineligible for most of the public benefits that citizens receive.

Some economists would argue that by creating an environment that is inhospitable to immigrants, Suffolk County may actually be losing out on its full economic potential. A recent study by a non-partisan think tank that focuses on economic and workforce issues found that the recent influx of immigrants into New York City has revitalized once-depressed neighborhoods. According to the author of the report, Jonathan Bowles, immigrants have “become real engines of growth. They’re creating an incredible amount of new businesses.” A Newsday article on the report stated:

While the study did not include Long Island, local economists said they believe the boom in immigrant-run businesses extend to Nassau and Suffolk, because of the large numbers of newcomers and a traditional entrepreneurial spirit among immigrants.

“I think it’s a similar impact,” said Peal Kamer, chief economist of the Long Island Association, the area’s largest businesses group. “I think they’re adding vitality not only to the neighborhoods which already have established immigrant communities, but I think it’s true throughout Long Island.”

Suffolk County should be welcoming immigrants into its economy, instead of fostering a climate that is divisive.

The hostility towards immigrants in Suffolk County not only hurts the County’s bottom line, but also fuels the rise of intolerance in the County and the nation. The Anti-Defamation League recently released a report on the increase of Ku Klux Klan activity in the United States. It determined that much of the Klan’s resurgence has been connected to the rise of anti-immigrant sentiments. According to the ADL:

“If any one single issue or trend can be credited with re-energizing the Klan, it is the debate over immigration in America. Klan groups have witnessed a surprising and troubling resurgence by exploiting fears of an immigration explosion, and the debate over immigration has, in turn, helped to fuel an increase in Klan activity, with new groups sprouting in parts of the country that have not seen much activity…. The KKK believes that the U.S. is ‘drowning’ in a tide of non-white immigration, controlled and orchestrated by Jews, and is vigorously trying to bring this message to Americans concerned or fearful about immigration.”

Suffolk lawmakers should realize that their actions fan the flames of intolerance across our country.

Introductory Resolution 1022 Is Unconstitutional As It Unduly Infringes On Suffolk Residents’ First Amendment Rights

The First Amendment protects the right of people to solicit work in public spaces. Introductory Resolution 1022 unduly infringes on this right and is unconstitutional because it violates day laborers’ rights by discriminating against day labor speech and preventing day laborers from soliciting work.

Civil rights organizations have been successful in challenging these ordinances across the country, resulting in federal courts striking down every challenged ordinance as unconstitutional. Every court to have considered this type of anti-solicitation/loitering ordinance has recognized that day laborers have a right to solicit work in public spaces, and that any infringement on this right raises serious constitutional problems. These courts have found that any infringement on day laborers’ First Amendment rights is presumptively unconstitutional.

A federal court will most likely strike down IR 1022 as unconstitutional. Suffolk County should avoid the expense of litigation by not passing this infringement on Suffolk residents’ First Amendment rights.

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