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Westchester Legislators Pass Immigrant Protection Act

The Westchester Board of Legislators approved an Immigrant Protection Act Monday night. Democratic County Executive George Latimer intends to sign the bill. A few Republican legislators say the measure puts safety on the line. And some attorneys believe Westchester will become the first county in New York to have such legislation on the books.

Democratic Westchester County Legislator Virginia Perez says the Act prevents individuals from being targeted solely because of their immigration status. Perez chairs the Legislation Committee.

“I’m an immigrant myself. And I’m the only Hispanic on the Board of Legislators. So, as a Hispanic immigrant, it means a lot to me as a resident of the City of Yonkers,” Perez says. “But as a Hispanic legislator, as an immigrant legislator, it means the world to me that I’m able to provide this for my community. Not everyone is an illegal immigrant.”

She says the legislation is not a sanctuary bill, but defines what county law enforcement can ask about a person's citizenship or immigration status and what information the county will share with federal officials. Attorney Vanessa Merton teaches and directs the Immigration Justice Clinic at Pace University School of Law in White Plains. She helped work on the legislation and believes it is the first of its kind.

“We are not aware of any other county, Board of Legislators, or similar body that has undertaken to disentangle, clearly, to clearly disentangle county employees, county personnel, from doing the federal government’s job,” says Merton.

Perez says there is a lot of misinformation about the bill.

“Some of that misinformation that’s being spread around the community is that we have just passed a law to protect criminals,” Perez says. 

Peekskill Republican John Testa is Board of Legislators minority leader.

“It only protects illegal, undocumented residents who are, find themselves, through their own actions, in the county jail. And it helps them avoid any kind of interaction with the federal Homeland Security agents that they would normally have in the county jail,” Testa says. “And the second thing it does, it’s an attempt to eliminate the distinction between legal and illegal immigration.”

Again, Perez.

“And it makes absolutely no sense. Lawmakers are not going to pass a law to protect those who break the law,” says Perez. “This is just to give a sense of security to those hard-working and law-abiding immigrants.”

Merton says the Immigrant Protection Act does not render Westchester a sanctuary county, but says that might not matter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“Did we just make Westchester a sanctuary county? No, we did not. Could Jeff Sessions lawlessly come after Westchester nonetheless? It would not be a shock considering this is the county of Hillary Clinton; this is the county of Governor Cuomo; and this is the county where Rob Astorino is still nursing his grudges. So is it quite possible that there might be some kind of action by the Justice Department albeit completely contrary to law? Yes, that could happen.”

Former County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican, vetoed an earlier version of the bill in 2017. County Executive Latimer, who took office in January, says he will sign it. Again, Testa.

“So we just have to sit back now and see how this being enacted will adversely affect our county,” says Testa. “I believe we’ll be considered and declared a sanctuary jurisdiction under the federal guidelines by the attorney general.”

In a statement, Latimer says, in part, “The Westchester County Board of Legislators has completed important work on this legislation. They came together, in a bi-partisan way, to protect the people of Westchester. They listened to law enforcement officials, advocates and residents, and drafted a law that is about safety – and nothing else. This legislation in no way goes against Federal law, and in no way will allow criminals to be harbored.  To say otherwise is simply not true.”

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