Letter from Cindy Falk
No to Exclusion as an ‘Emergency’ Measure
This year, I had students in my historic preservation class at the Cooperstown Graduate Program do research on businesses in New York in the 1930s to the 1960s that were welcoming to Black travelers as documented in the “Negro Motorist Green Book.” One student, Megan Good, uncovered the story of the Trade Winds Motor Court in Yonkers and its involvement in the United States v. City of Yonkers segregation case.
In 1984, former city council member Michael F. Cipriani admitted to attempting to limit the number of minority patrons to the Trade Winds Motor Court to no more than 15 percent, citing rampant crime. While this was one small part of the overall case, the court found that the City of Yonkers, the Yonkers Board of Education, and the Yonkers Community Development agency had intentionally segregated public schools and housing. That was not only ethically wrong, but it was also illegal.
Imagine my surprise to then read a recent Emergency Order issued by Otsego County that—citing a housing crisis—states, “No hotel, motel, owner of a multiple dwelling, or shelter in Otsego County is permitted to contract or otherwise engage in business with any other municipality other than the County of Otsego for the purpose of providing housing or accommodations for migrants or asylum seekers without a license granted by the county.”
It goes on to explain that a license from the county will only be issued if “the migrants or asylum seekers will be returned to the foreign municipality from which they arrived or another location outside the County, within fifteen days.”
Like racial segregation, policies at the federal, state, and now county level addressing migration across international borders into the United States are often motivated by fear and prejudice, especially against people who are perceived as different. In Yonkers, in the 1980s, government officials cited crime as the reason to keep Black people out of hotels, including the Trade Winds (which, by the way, rented rooms just for the day with discounted rates before 6 p.m).
In Otsego County today, the rationale is more nuanced, but in the end the board chairman finds, “This situation threatens public safety.”
It is as if history is repeating itself, as county government creates ways to prevent private lodging establishments from renting to people of color, in this case defined by their immigration status (or lack thereof).
No one would deny that federal immigration policy is long overdue for reform. However, I had hoped for more from my county leadership. Declaring a housing emergency as a way to stop Central American migrants from arriving locally is shortsighted and discriminatory. As to legality, we will have to wait on the courts. Rockland and Orange counties are already being sued. Just a decade ago, a federal appellate court ruled that Hazleton, Pennsylvania’s ban on residents renting to undocumented tenants illegally usurped federal authority to regulate immigration.
In Yonkers, the federal segregation case of the 1980s took decades to resolve and the stain on that community is permanent. Perhaps creative minds will find alternatives to exclusion more quickly in this case.
Hazleton tax payers are still paying to this day. But more importantly the immigrants working on dairies and farms that support our communities have the very similar stories as these few migrants that may come here. Why not support them back?