Calls in Philipstown for ‘equal protection’
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Under a proposal the Town Board took up March 2, Philipstown could become a “sanctuary city” to shield residents from harassment and deportation, regardless of immigration status, race, ethnicity, gender or religious beliefs.
At its formal monthly meeting, the board welcomed and informally agreed to explore an addition to the town code guaranteeing “equal protection” to everyone living in Philipstown and forbid town officials or employees from participating in round-ups of undocumented immigrants.
Garrison resident Eric Stark, who in January organized ongoing, ad hoc gatherings of those concerned about Trump administration policies, provided the board with a draft “Equal Protection” law.
“The people the [federal] government labels as illegal immigrants are our neighbors, our friends, our employees and people we see daily,” he told the board. “They need to be protected.”
The proposal would prevent town employees or officials from cooperating with arrests or detentions by federal agents enforcing immigration laws; assisting in an investigation of anyone’s citizenship or immigration status, unless forced by higher law or judicial orders; or disclosing information on someone’s citizenship or non-citizenship, unless required by federal law.
A Nation of Immigrants
Number in the U.S.: 41.7 million
Number in New York: 4.4 million
Number in Putnam County: 12,600
Source: Migration Policy Institute, citing U.S. Census data. “Immigrant” refers to people who are not U.S. citizens by birth. It includes naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, people on student or work visas, those admitted under refugee or asylum status, and persons residing in the country illegally.
Adoption of such a measure forces the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “to operate on their own without our assistance,” Stark said. He described the initiative as “a call to our better angels … to infuse our culture with a positive nature and spirit” and to “make sure everyone is treated with respect.”
The village of Cold Spring maintains its own police force, but Philipstown relies on the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement. Officers from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Metro-North, the state police and other agencies also operate within town boundaries.
Except for criminal investigations, they operate under the Town of Philipstown code, Supervisor Richard Shea said.
Despite his wariness of the Trump administration, Stark described the cause as a non-partisan issue. His one-page document states the town “recognizes the importance of diversity as a component of the American experience, that we as a nation collectively benefit from two core values enshrined in our Constitution: tolerance and inclusion” and that Philipstown “upholds the value of equal protection under law for all its residents.”
Shea said that for the past few months he had been pondering a similar measure, a Citizens’ Bill of Rights, and has spoken with Town Attorney Steve Gaba about the legal aspects of adopting one. He suggested that Stark’s Equal Protection amendment could be combined with the Bill of Rights or stand alone, whichever works better.
Following President Trump’s threat to withhold federal funds from cities that declare themselves to be “sanctuaries” (those in New York include New York, Ithaca, Kingston, Rochester and Syracuse), the Democratic-ruled state Assembly on Feb. 6 passed legislation on a 77-58 vote that would prohibit local and state police from conducting a stop or making an arrest based solely on the belief a person is in the country illegally. The act is unlikely to become law, as it would not survive a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Seventeen Democrats voted against the proposal, including Sandy Galef, who represents Philipstown. Frank Skartados, who represents Beacon, voted yes. (In a statement, Galef said she does not support the detention of anyone “on the sole belief or suspicion that he or she is an undocumented immigrant” but felt the bill “did not do an adequate job of protecting all New Yorkers from those arrested on serious felony charges” who the bill might prevent from being deported. The full statement is here.)
The proposed law also would prevent agencies from asking people about their immigration status when they report a crime or seek help. Also, local and state agencies could not detain people at the request of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with the exception of people convicted of a violent crime or Class A felony, or on a federal terrorism watch list.
The Assembly also on Feb. 6 passed the Dream Act, which would allow undocumented high school students in New York to apply for financial aid. The legislation has been approved by the Assembly five times but never made it through the Senate. Both Galef and Skartados voted for the measure.
Shea told The Current on March 7 that his Citizens’ Bill of Rights would focus in part on environmental rights and protection from harmful climate change while also sharing key principles with Stark’s initiative.
In terms of the latter, “it would mostly be about human dignity, respecting human dignity,” on various levels, Shea explained. “Just because a lot of people are running around with their heads on fire” over immigration or other issues nationally, Philipstown need not do likewise, he said.
“We don’t want to go breaking up families” or seeing the deportation of someone pulled over in a traffic stop because of a defective taillight or other minor infraction, he said. “To me, it would be tragic. That wouldn’t be right.”
At the same time, he cautioned, in the case of a suspect arrested for a violent crime, “all bets are off.”
On March 2, stating that “time is of the essence,” Stark expressed eagerness “to get the ball rolling.”
“The ball is rolling, has been rolling,” Shea assured him. “We represent the public. Generally speaking, if there’s strong sentiment about something and our attorneys say it’s something we can do, it gets done.”