Silvia Finkelstein, director of immigrant affairs for the Nassau County district attorney, has a problem.
Speaking to a gathering of about 40 people at the Barry and Florence Friedberg JCC in Oceanside on Jan 24, Finkelstein described a situation that her department was founded in 2015 to alleviate. “We need to be able to prosecute our cases,” she said. “And in order to do that, we need to have our witnesses and our victims cooperate with us.”
Finkelstein described a distinct chilling effect that actions and rhetoric on the federal level have had on immigrants’ willingness to help. “Given the current climate, there’s a lot of fear in the immigrant communities to come forward or participate in any way in the criminal justice system,” she said, adding that in 2017, immigrant-related crimes reported on her department’s confidential hotline were way down.
“In 2016 we had 60 calls to our hotline reporting crimes,” she said. “In 2017, we had three calls. They’re afraid.”
When pressed by members of her audience, many of whom were older, to specify which policies she was referring to, Finkelstein insisted that her presentation was not intended to be political. “I can’t talk about the president,” she said.
As immigration talks have snarled budget negotiations on Capitol Hill, and as the question of what to do with the nation’s more than 800,000 residents who came to the country illegally as children lingers, Marcy Hallerman, the JCC’s senior program director, and Mindy Perlmutter, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council on Long Island, said they felt the talk would be particularly relevant. “It’s a hot topic,” Perlmutter said after the presentation.
Billed as a deconstruction of facts and myths about immigration on Long Island, the talk focused on the history of immigration restrictions in the U.S., and from a criminal justice standpoint, how immigrants, particularly illegal ones, participate in Long Island society.
Undocumented, or illegal, immigrants commit crimes, but not at a higher rate than American citizens, Finkelstein said, using statistics from the nonpartisan Immigration Policy Institute and the Population Association of America. Of the 11 million people living illegally in the U.S., roughly 3 percent have been convicted of a felony, while the rate among the general population is 6 percent.
Additionally, she said, since 2005, the majority of illegal immigration has come from overstayed visas, meaning that foreigners have entered the country legally, but then violated the terms of their entry.
Many have found jobs. According to a 2015 study by the Fiscal Policy Institute, of the 48,000 illegal immigrants living in Nassau County, a quarter work in the construction industry and the rest are in food services, retail, child care and other jobs.
And to the surprise of some in the room, they pay taxes as well, Finkelstein said. Through rent, income tax, false Social Security numbers and tax identification numbers, illegal immigrants in New York pay more than $1 billion in state and local taxes, according to a 2017 study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. On average, they spend nearly 9 percent of their income on taxes, with no reciprocal Social Security or Medicare benefits.
The audience was largely sympathetic. “It’s not easy to obtain a legal visa,” said Mira Levy, of Rockville Centre, as Finkelstein discussed the increasingly limited options for legal migration to the U.S.
The image that came into focus was of a vulnerable population, a sentiment driven home when Irv Miljoner, of Oceanside, the district director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, said that his department often deals with immigrants, illegal or otherwise, facing labor exploitation.
“The most common crime, afflicting and affecting immigrants both legal and undocumented, is workplace crimes,” Miljoner said. “It’s not unusual for us to find workers who are paid as little as $2 per hour.”
He described how, during outreach events at various private institutions, he is sometimes angrily confronted. “‘You mean you’re expending taxpayer dollars protecting people who are here illegally?’ is the provocative way they put the question,” he said. “I answer that question very simply: ‘Yes, yes we do.’”
Miljoner explained that his department is legally obligated to enforce labor laws, regardless of the victim, and that a lack of enforcement could invite further exploitation. “If we did not enforce the law for undocumented workers,” he said, “it would just be an additional incentive for more employers to hire undocumented workers, exploit them, not pay them minimum wage [and] keep them off the books, hurting everyone — the economy, the tax base, the wage levels, etcetera.”
He added that his office does not report any information about the victims Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Finkelstein agreed that victims of crime, regardless of legal status, deserve due process. “Justice in Nassau County is for everyone,” she said, and asserted that her office does not share information with federal agencies on immigrant witnesses to or victims of crimes it may be prosecuting. Responding to a question from the audience, she said that she was unaware of immigration authority raids outside Nassau County courtrooms.
The ever-narrowing path to legal immigration, according to Finkelstein, has been the case in America for more than a century, as each generation labeled another set of newcomers undesirable. Whether they be Chinese, Japanese, Jews or Catholics, restrictions on immigration are not new in America.
“What can we do?” Levy asked.
“I don’t know,” Finkelstein replied. “I’m not a politician.”
But, citing a 1790 letter written by George Washington to a Hebrew congregation in Rhode Island, the presentation also hinted that the concept of America as a country of immigrants is still a core aspect of its identity.
“Happily the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” Washington wrote. “[And] requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
And, referring to the Statue of Liberty, Finkelstein added, “We still have this lady in the harbor.”