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Judge: LI Town Violated Day Laborers' Rights Under Amend I

 

In a major free-speech victory for immigrants, a Federal judge ruled Thursday that a Long Island town’s anti-immigrant law is unconstitutional.

The decision grew out of the passage of a law in 2009 that targeted day laborers. Oyster Bay politicians championed the eradication of day laborer hiring sites in the town.  Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto had a long history of opposition to the Latino immigrant community. His ordinance was aimed at day laborers assembling in Locust Valley, an upscale village within the town on the exclusive North Shore.

Typically, only 20 to 30 men sought work at the Locust Valley site, according to the court, although on some days the number ran as high as 50 men. In spite of the low number of workers actually using the hiring site, anti-immigrant activists frightened homeowners with greatly exaggerated numbers and whispered tales of gang violence. Supervisor Venditto contributed to the fear when he stigmatized the day laborers as “illegal aliens” during the debate over the proposed ordinance.

After the law was passed, the NYCLU and LatinoJustice filed suit against it on behalf of Centro de la Comunidad Hispana de Locust Valley and the Workplace Project in Hempstead. An injunction was issued, and the law has never been enforced.

Although the number of men using the Locust Valley street to seek work was relatively small, the impact on them and their families would have been devastating. Studies show that day laborers derive almost all of their income from work they get on street corners.

District Court judge Denis Hurley struck down the law on Thursday saying that it was overbroad and interfered with the First Amendment rights of immigrants to seek work. “Judge Hurley has flatly rejected Oyster Bay's assertion that solicitation of employment by day laborers is unlawful,” said Alan Levine, Special Counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “It is a view shared by courts around the country. There is a long and honorable tradition in this country by which men and women, standing and marching in public places, have made known their availability for work. It is time for Oyster Bay and other municipalities to acknowledge that day laborers, like other workers before them, have this fundamental right.”

The ordinance was so poorly written that it would have criminalized high school students soliciting cars for a car wash fundraiser and Girl Scouts holding a cookie sale on the sidewalk. “Our constitution protects the rights of American newcomers seeking the opportunity to work hard for a better quality of life,” said Corey Stoughton, NYCLU Supervising Senior Staff Attorney. “We should be celebrating the entrepreneurial spirit of day laborers not stigmatizing them.”

While Supervisor Venditto claimed the new law was not targeting Latinos, but trying to correct a traffic safety issue, Judge Hurley noted that the town had adequate local traffic ordinances to address trucks stopping in the street and blocking traffic or men running into the right of way. In describing the town’s arguments in defense of its law as “underwhelming” and “unpersuasive” the Court indicated a clear displeasure with the Town’s attempted circumvention of the First Amendment to try to injure these immigrant workers.

The Town of Oyster Bay ordinance was the subject of a great deal of agitation on Long island during the months leading up to its passage. False and misleading information against immigrants was circulated in the town of 300,000 residents. Hate groups had the ears of the town’s highest elected officials. But all through the ordeal, churches, community groups, and civil rights organizations stood with the tiny embattled immigrant community of Locust Valley. 

Pat Young is a lawyer at CARECEN on Long Island.

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