ALBANY — Efforts by federal immigration agents to apprehend undocumented immigrants have stirred emotions in New York's Hudson Valley region and are being cited as a factor in the recent closing of a Mexican restaurant that had been in business for two decades.
In a riverfront city known for antiques shops, Hudson, the management of Mexican Radio suggested in a social media post upon the Aug. 11 shuttering of the restaurant that several of its workers have been "forcibly and violently ejected from this country, tearing out the very soul of our kitchen staff."
Meanwhile, pro-immigration activists have rallied around the owner of the nearby Casa Latina restaurant, contending that business is being targeted by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents because its owner, Maria Romero Valdez, has been an outspoken supporter of allowing undocumented immigrants to qualify for driver's licenses.
The tensions are playing out not only in Columbia County, which has a robust sanctuary movement, but throughout parts of upstate New York as well, according to advocates for undocumented immigrants.
“These raids are not only cruel and inhumane, they are downright foolish — threatening families, local businesses and entire economies as evidenced by the shutdown of community institutions like Mexican Radio," said Steve Choi, director of the New York Immigration Coalition. The nonprofit advocacy group and service organization helped propel passage of the controversial driver's license legislation this year at the statehouse.
Noting studies show immigrants contribute an estimated $15 billion in state and local taxes in New York, Choi argued all New Yorkers lose when they are "forced into the shadows or forcibly separated from their families."
A spokesman for ICE, Khaalid Walls, said Mexican Radio is not among the dozens of New York businesses that have faced immigration investigations this year. Walls did not respond to questions as to whether any of the restaurant's workers have been recently detained, as alleged by leaders of the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement.
The suggestion that arrests of Mexican Radio workers was a contributing factor in the restaurant's closing has been met with skepticism by supporters of ICE's enforcement efforts.
Some 40 miles north of Hudson, in Troy, another riverfront city, Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin has been a strong proponent of aggressive enforcement of immigration laws.
"Restaurants come and go and these excuses are nonsense," McLaughlin told CNHI. "I thought the food at Mexican Radio was at best average and it was expensive."
He said he was surprised the business hadn't been shuttered earlier than it was.
He also argued that if the operators had compassion for workers who were in the country illegally, they would have devoted time over the past decade to guiding them through the legal immigration process.
"Nobody is saying to immigrants: 'Don't come here,'" McLaughlin said. "Every single person I know is saying, 'Come here, but just do it legally.'"
To warn potential targets of ICE agents, members of the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement have posted photos on the group's social media page of the investigators as well as the license plates of the undercover vehicles they drive.
Bryan MacCormack, an organizer with the group, said the organization plans to hold training seminars this fall to help employers and immigrants understand their legal rights if they are confronted by immigration agents.
Hudson declared itself a sanctuary city two years ago. While most Hudson residents have been "overwhelmingly supportive" of the efforts to assist undocumented immigrants, MacCormack said, members of the group have also faced "continued harassment" from several individuals who back the deportation of those alleged to be in violation of immigration laws.
Recent immigration raids have also been a concern for upstate farmers, many of whom rely on foreign migrant workers to harvest their crops and milk their cows.
"We do get reports of ICE activity, and it becomes difficult for farms when workers are pulled off the milk line or out of the fields when farm labor is so scarce; so it makes it difficult for our farmers to provide food for our communities," said Steve Ammerman, spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau. The organization represents more than 30,000 farms, the bulk of them in the upstate region.
Walls, the ICE spokesman, said federal Homeland Security Investigations conducted immigration inspections at 75 businesses in the upstate region in 2018.
"HSI’s worksite enforcement strategy continues to address both employers who knowingly hire unauthorized workers and the workers themselves," Walls said in an email. "These routine efforts are ongoing and not related to other operational activity."
He said the strategy of prosecuting employers who knowingly hire undocumented immigrants as well as the fines that can be imposed help to spur compliance with the laws and combat "worker exploitation, illegal wages, child labor and other illegal practices."
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com