As people flocked to the Hamptons last week to celebrate America’s independence with backyard barbeques and glasses of rosé, East End locals got together to confront a sobering American reality facing immigrant families.
At the Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor on July 3, Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, or OLA—a nonprofit Latino advocacy agency—hosted a gathering to encourage community members to act locally to support immigrants right here.
“I am here, OLA is here and you are all here for a reason,” said Minerva Perez, executive director of OLA, to a room full of willing volunteers. “We have needless suffering and fear and danger here and we need your act of engagement.”
To that end, the organization is offering a host of different initiatives despite continuing threats by President Donald Trump to deport immigrants who are in the country illegally, as well as expected U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids.
On a government level, community members can engage through court observation, helping to gather information and monitor what goes on day-to-day in local courts. Ms. Perez emphasized that experts in this area are not needed. “We are looking for people that live in those towns to observe what goes on in their own towns or villages,” she said.
“I think it’s really made a difference because no one’s ever observed,” said OLA volunteer Jackie Gavron, who visits court in East Hampton on Wednesdays and Thursdays. “You look at the tone, you look at the language, you look at how different people are spoken to.”
Community members can also assist OLA’s human rights attorney, Andrew Strong, with analysis of documents obtained through Freedom of Information Law requests that can often shed light on important trends happening in the law enforcement system.
“OLA…is dedicated to doing this massive amount of work as an adjunct to towns and municipalities and police forces,” Ms. Perez said, adding that the organization will share its findings back with local governments.
OLA is also initiating a dedicated public education team that will aim to engage with school districts, acting as a resource for them, as well as study enrollment policies that may differ from district to district.
In the 23 East End school districts, Ms. Perez said Latinos make up a “low average” of 45 percent of the student body. They are “setting high academic bars for themselves and their peers,” Ms. Perez said.
One student who has done just that is Jon Lopez, a first-generation American, Sag Harbor local and second-year student at Georgetown University. He just took a gap semester to serve as OLA’s administrative assistant and youth liaison, helping to launch Latino youth leadership dinners aimed to “uplift each other,” he said. The first one was held a few weeks ago and, thanks to social media, word spread fast. About 15 kids showed up ready to engage and learn from one another, he said.
“It’s really nice to gather students who are just like me who are able to vent about issues that they see in school, or whether they have dreams of becoming a surgeon, or a doctor, or attending some Ivy League school, or being able to take some sort of vocational path,” Mr. Lopez said. “A lot of these kids who are just like me have so much aspirations and dreams…what we need, in my opinion, from the community is possibly more mentors.”
The recent passing of the “Green Light NY” bill—considered a big win for the community, as it gives undocumented immigrants the ability to obtain driver’s licenses—also creates a need for local driver’s license mentors. These mentors would ensure that those seeking licenses are adequately prepared, whether that means helping them gather the correct documents or study for related tests.
“Having people in the community stand with someone and help them through that process—it’s a new process—just feels so much better and it’s really key to making this work,” Ms. Perez said.
Other areas mentioned during the gathering include medical transportation assistance and family ambassadors, which would help the Latino community better navigate the area. “There are people in our community who are kind of lost even if they’ve been here for a bit,” Ms. Perez said, adding that needs could be as simple as helping a family obtain a library card.
With all these initiatives and a community eager to help, Ms. Perez still acknowledged that threats against immigrants on a national level aren’t going away yet. That makes local engagement all the more important.
“What’s missing a lot is our ability to envision the future where this community has survived because of the empathy and action of our fellow community members,” she said. “If we can really envision this thing, we are going to create it.”
For more information, visit olaofeasternlongisland.org.