SARATOGA SPRINGS — In the wake of nearly 30 immigrants being arrested by federal agents in the city in less than two months, Alexandra Desachy asked a crowded lecture hall, “Why now — and why Saratoga?”
“It seems like ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] decided to come to Saratoga and raid mostly high-end restaurants,” the 45-year-old Spa City woman said. “It looks to me like a statement toward all other business owners — possibly in the country, who knows?”
Desachy, who came to the United States from Mexico two decades ago, was the first of many residents to ask a question Monday at Skidmore College during a town hall on the economic, social and cultural impacts of immigration. The two-hour event was hosted by the city’s Human Rights Task Force, appointed by Mayor Joanne Yepsen in May, and the college’s Latin American Studies and World Languages and Literatures departments.
Patrick Pipino, owner of Ben & Jerry’s on Phila Street and one of the night’s panelists, agreed that the federal government was making a statement with the recent actions locally.
“Because we’re in the news a lot, and because were a thriving community and an inclusive community, yes — I think it sends a statement,” he said. “I think it sends a message that there’s a new sheriff in town.”
But he also pointed to the city’s large number of restaurants per capita, employing the expression “low-hanging fruit.” He noted an immigrant population that “drives the food and beverage industry in this town.”
“It’s easy,” he said. “We don’t have a huge geographic tract, so you have a cluster of restaurants in a very small radius. So it’s easy to pick off those people, unfortunately.”
Samantha Howell, president of the National Lawyers Guild’s Albany chapter and another panelist, said ICE is making arrests elsewhere, like in Columbia County and the North Country, but they don’t necessarily receive as much publicity as the cases in Saratoga Springs.
“It’s not just Saratoga,” said Howell, who is also a member of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Byron Cortez, a local immigration activist who helps people find affordable health insurance, noted that about 400 immigrants are detained across the country every day. He said he believes some of the local arrests are being fueled by racial prejudice. He pointed to a sign posted on Union Avenue that stated, “‘No illegal documented workers at the track this year— orders by President Trump.”
Most of the recent arrests have involved Mexican men being detained.
“The sign speaks for itself,” said Cortez, who introduced himself earlier in the night as a "proud immigrant" from Columbia.
Cortez, whose father was deported, said he sees himself in the eyes of the “young kids who are being left behind without a parent.”
“It’s just happening nonstop,” he said. “We need to empower people who speak no English … so they know that they have rights, no matter who the president is.”
Howell said the Trump administration, through executive order, has enabled more deportation of undocumented immigrants for misdemeanors and nonviolent offenses.
“That was always permissible, but under [President] Obama it was deprioritized,” she said. “His focus was on removing people with violent felony convictions.”
She also spoke to how difficult it is to obtain U.S. citizenship. She pointed to expensive fees required to apply for a Visa, a very limited number of Visas and long waiting lists.
More than 11 million undocumented immigrants were living in the U.S. in 2015, according to data she cited from the PEW Research Center.
“If you were born in the Philippines, but you are the brother or sister of an adult U.S. citizen and you want to come to the United States, they are processing applications that were submitted Nov. 22, 1993,” she said, getting some gasps from the crowd.
Ryan Horstmyer, a representative from the office of U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, read a statement fromTonko addressing residents’ concerns over “recent ICE raids”:
“While I understand recent enforcement actions may be within the purview of law, I believe our limited resources would be better spent in ensuring the removal of dangerous criminals and not the hardworking employees of local businesses.”
Mayor Yepsen said the city has many churches and nonprofits to support its immigrant population.
“What we don’t have is the power over the federal agencies,” she said.
She said the city police department, however, “will do nothing to participate in or initiate any kind of deportation efforts,” drawing applause.
“We are a welcoming and inclusive community, period, and we will do everything in our power to make sure that is upheld,” she said.
After the town hall, Desachy said there’s “nothing more un-American” than the recent ICE arrests in Saratoga Springs.
“It's completely in opposition to the founding principles of this country,” she said. “Why are we criminalizing the people who are working?”