Anxious parents filled the auditorium at Westbury Middle School Wednesday for a community forum intended to address growing concerns among immigrant and minority groups that the new Trump administration’s controversial policies could rip families apart.
Dozens of parents told a panel of elected officials, lawyers and religious leaders that children, especially Hispanic students, are hesitant to go to school out of fear that immigration agents will pick them up. Muslim residents said they’re worried about safety at mosques, especially after the recent slaying of six people at a Quebec City mosque in Canada. They said that some worshipers are avoiding places of worship entirely while others are constantly looking over their shoulders.
“I’m really just tired of being scared,” said one Muslim woman wearing a traditional religious head cover to the panel. “I do not feel safe being overtly Muslim.”
Some speakers said it didn’t help matters that Nassau County police did not send a representative to attend the forum despite being invited. A Nassau police spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
This was the second forum on this topic since President Donald Trump’s election victory. Organizers said they were trying to build upon themes raised from its first meeting at the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, when parents urged schools to take a more proactive role in addressing their concerns.
On Wednesday night, Westbury Public Schools Superintendent Mary A. Lagnado said the district, among the most diverse on the Island, is part of the fabric of the community and that’s why she believed it was important to open the school’s doors. Still, she acknowledged that other schools might be more hesitant, given the current political climate.
“The auditorium that we’re in was built with community funds—it’s a community auditorium, that’s why we’re hosting,” she told several hundred people in attendance. “That’s what this country was founded on. That’s what makes us great: that we all come from different walks of life and together we can become stronger.”
Issues of legal rights of immigrants, anti-religious attacks and the impact of Trump’s now-frozen travel ban took center stage. While panelists weren’t equipped to address every question, they did try to assuage parents and clear the air about unsubstantiated rumors.
Asked whether U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents can simply barge into a home or round up people walking down the street—common concerns in the Hispanic community—lawyers on the panel had the same answer: Unless a signed warrant is produced, people are not obligated to comply.
Acknowledging recent raids across the country targeting undocumented immigrants, the attorneys on the panel said such operations are intended for specific individuals. They also noted that ICE agents are prohibited from indiscriminately rounding up people based on race or ethnicity and that they are legally mandated to produce a warrant when requesting someone show identification.
Similarly, panelists told the audience that ICE agents are not allowed into schools or places of worship—buildings where those with questionable legal status could find refuge.
Silvia Finkelstein of the Nassau District Attorney’s Office of Immigrant Affairs said that recent operations are comparable to those under the Obama administration, which deported more undocumented immigrants than any president in history.
Finkelstein shook her head after she was asked to dispel the widely believed misconception that undocumented immigrants can become legal after being in the country for 10 years. Such claims are entirely false, she said. She warned the audience that unscrupulous attorneys have taken large sums of money and tricked unsuspecting immigrants. She also made the community aware of reports that criminals posing as ICE agents have harassed immigrants for money instead of arresting them. The public should be vigilant, she said.
At the forum, participants said that the perceived provocation from the White House has caused such a palpable fear among immigrants that even those in the United States legally have expressed fear that their status could be reversed retroactively.
But now Muslim Americans, typically one of the most marginalized communities in the country, are in a position where they’re promising to stand in solidarity with the Hispanic community.
“Our doors are open, our kitchens are open,” said Dr. Isma Chaudhry, president of the Islamic Center of Long Island and one of the forum’s organizers.
Recognizing that Muslim Americans have “been the target of hate,” one Muslim woman said she was inspired by the thousands of people who took to the streets after Trump’s ban on seven Muslim-majority nations went into effect. Despite her own concerns, she told Hispanics in attendance: “We stand with you.”
Long Island school children and their teachers share many of the same concerns as their counterparts nationwide, according to a recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center conducted after the presidential election. In that poll, 90 percent of educators said their schools had been affected negatively by the presidential campaign and that 80 percent recalled “heightened anxiety and fear among students.”
“Those statistics don’t surprise me,” said Rabbi Michael White of Temple Sinai of Roslyn, who also helped organize Wednesday’s event. “Once you open that Pandora’s box, every group that is typically a target becomes an explicit target.”
Despite anti-Semitic attacks before and after the election, the Jewish community on Long Island feels safe, he said.
“So we have an obligation to stand and be present with our friends in communities that feel vulnerable right now,” White added.
The most impassioned plea of the evening came from Westbury Village Justice Tom Liotti, who spoke critically of the Trump administration.
Citing the Declaration of Independence, Liotti said that it’s the duty of citizens to rebel against an oppressive government.
Referring to the Trump administration, Liotti said, “We don’t have compassion and empathy. We have bottom-line decisions.”