As a city that relies heavily on workers from other nations, Saratoga Springs must take steps to safeguard the rights of all people, Mayor Joanne Yepsen said.
“Let’s face it, there are 2,500 people working for the race industry, and many of them are Latinos,” Yepsen said. “I think there’s seven different Spanish dialects spoken on the backstretch alone, and more and more of these families are settling in our city as community members."
She added, “We’re trying very hard to assimilate them into this community ... We also have a lot of restaurant workers and others who are here trying to make a go of it. I think it’s different when you’re a hospitality, tourism, destination community."
With this in mind, and as fear of deportation spreads among immigrants, the mayor is launching a Human Rights Task Force to provide education, programming and a place for the city’s various human rights groups, which have been popping up in the days before and after the election of President Donald Trump, to collaborate.
“We want to create the kind of message that we instill during the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend,” Yepsen said. “We want to do that year-round.”
The task force, for which Yepsen announced plans in her State of the City address in January, will put into action a human rights resolution passed unanimously by the City Council on Dec. 6, Yepsen said.
“Our community residents are more generous than most communities and are there to help one another,” she said. “However, I feel there’s been enough proof that we're not immune to some of these problems.”
She pointed to graffiti in the form of swastikas found in the city in November as one example.
“Luckily we’re a very safe city, and we have very little crime, period, but I think it’s more the hate crimes that I’m worried about,” she said. “I’m worried about prejudices. I’m worried about not accepting one another as equals. So it’s really the basic human rights, and I do feel that this group will be able to help prevent some of those.”
Yepsen said the task force will include seven members and is being modeled on the Schenectady County Human Rights Commission, which is directed by Angelica Morris. According to its website, the commission was established in 1965 to “foster mutual respect and enhance understanding among all racial, religious and ethnic groups in Schenectady County, and to assist individuals in securing their legal rights.”
“She’s been extremely helpful in guiding us,” the mayor said.
Unlike the commission, however, there will be no public funding behind the task force. It will also not provide legal representation or perform any case work, but group members will refer people to organizations and agencies that can, Yepsen said.
“We’re not there yet,” she said. “We may work toward that.”
The task force started as a planning group with five members, including Hollyday Hammond, who chairs the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and came up with the idea. Yepsen said she will accept applications through April 12 and plans to announce the group members at the April 16 council meeting. Residents can apply online.
Yepsen announced the group’s formation on the same week that Police Chief Greig Veitch spoke to the City Council in response to community members’ inquiries about how the department handles immigration issues. Veitch said the department does not require or encourage officers to investigate the immigration status of victims or witnesses, and immigration enforcement is not a priority. If a federal agency like Homeland Security requests the department’s assistance, however, the department will cooperate, he said.
“Our mission is to serve and protect the residents and visitors of Saratoga Springs, regardless of their immigration status,” he said.
At the meeting, Public Safety Commission Christian Mathiesen said he wasn’t advocating for Saratoga Springs to become a sanctuary city, a status some cities have adopted that can entail refusing to cooperate with federal agencies in detaining undocumented immigrants for deportation — and also can mean giving up federal funds.
“And I’m not either,” Yepsen said Friday, citing paperwork from the state Attorney General’s Office saying the word “sanctuary” isn’t a legal term, but often describes jurisdictions that limit the role of local police in the enforcement of federal immigration laws. “We’re still going to protect all rights of people, as much as the New York state local laws allow us to do.”