Recently, there have been a series of articles in the daily press and on the nightly news regarding homeless, undocumented immigrants. These stories have underscored the serious plight of these men as they attempt to find adequate and reasonable housing, especially during the winter months.
In early January, there was a disturbing story about a group of undocumented men living in tents and boxes in the woods in a North Shore Township. On one of the coldest days to date, an eviction notice was posted in the woods where they were staying. They were informed that if they did not vacate the premises immediately, they ran the risk of being arrested and/or being given a very large fine.
The story further indicated that these men have been living in tents and boxes for months in this wooded area. Why did the local government decide now to evict these workers?
In Suffolk County, the issue of undocumented immigrants is probably one of the most volatile, explosive issues of this decade. People are passionate about this issue on all sides. Unfortunately, time and time again, as we have attempted to address this sensitive social issue, the political rhetoric has inflamed and derailed any kind of positive conversation.
Too often, our county and state government officials blame the federal government. The federal government has challenged local municipalities to come up with an interim solution, while Washington attempts to pass immigration reform legislation. It is no secret that when it comes to any kind of legislation locally or federally, it moves at a snail's pace.
Meanwhile, a growing number of undocumented workers potentially might freeze to death this winter. No matter what one's politics might be on this issue, it is unconscionable and inhumane for us not to find some reasonable interim resolution to this delicate human problem without sacrificing human life.
It is rather troubling in one of the richest counties in New York State, with some of the brightest and most creative people in the state in public service that we cannot find a creative way to address this human tragedy at least for the winter months.
We don't need another task force or another bureaucratic system to study the problem. We need people who are willing to think outside the box and call others to action, so that a reasonable and respectful solution might be developed, while the bureaucracy fights over immigration reform.
Since these disturbing stories broke in the daily newspapers and on the nightly news, people from all over Suffolk County have expressed a desire to help. People have offered their time, their talent and their treasure. Some local religious communities are already reaching out in very practical ways.
Unfortunately, the problem is much more serious than a winter coat drive and a collection of sleeping bags. We need to find physical places where the undocumented can sleep, shower, and possibly eat a simple meal. Government has made it clear that they cannot or shall I say they will not provide emergency services for the homeless, undocumented among us. Their major reason for taking that position is that it is illegal and there is no financial reimbursement for services offered.
Since that's the given, let's look at what other alternatives we have. The major areas where the undocumented have been staying throughout our county, there are colleges and universities. These institutions have security already in place and insurance. Most of these institutions also have large gymnasiums with locker rooms and showers.
These institutions could be used during the winter months as emergency centers. Volunteers from our college community and local communities could be sought to oversee and manage these sites for the next 60 to 90 days. Local religious communities would probably be more than willing to provide additional volunteers, plus food, winter clothing and bedding.
Most college communities today expect their student body to engage in community service before graduation. What a wonderful opportunity to engage in a vital community service that is desperately needed.
This is a County crisis that needs immediate attention. We need to reconvene the dialogue with all interested parties, but with a very different agenda. This human crisis demands action now. It is no time for inflammatory rhetoric and party politics. Human beings, even if they don't have the right papers and speak the right language, deserve at least a safe, warm place to stay during the winter months.
As a nation, we are in fiscal ruin. We do not have the resources to deport all of the undocumented. To arrest them and place them in jail is inhumane, and not cost-effective. Our jails are already overcrowded and costly to run. To fine the undocumented would be an exercise in futility. If they have that kind of money, they probably would have a warm, safe place to live, and would probably be on the road to being documented and legal.
There are no simple and immediate solutions to this very sensitive human issue. However, it does not justify fueling hate and discrimination. It does not give us the right to treat the undocumented disrespectfully and violently.
We have a profound opportunity to come together as a diverse political, social and religious community to pool all of our talents and our resources to come up with a creative interim solution to an overwhelming social problem. I am confident that we have the power and the energy to make a difference that counts!