By Mary Frost and David Brand
More than 1,000 police officers, fire officials, members of the military, security contractors and emergency management professionals from across the country converged on Manhattan for the annual National Homeland Security Conference last week.
During the event, counterterrorism professionals, critical response teams, cyberterrorism experts and other security professionals put on demonstrations, displayed their gear and shared their expertise with the 1,400 attendees.
Not all New Yorkers embraced the event, however. Protestors said the conference signalled an embrace of Immigration and Customs Enforcement — a Department of Homeland Security subsidiary — amid its crackdown on immigrants and asylum-seekers in Queens and citywide.
Though New York City is a prime terror target, this was the first year that the city has hosted the conference. But it won’t be the last, according to Branch Strickland, president of the National Homeland Security Association and executive director of finance at NYC Emergency Management, which organized the event.
Strickland said his agency worked long hours to put together the large-scale conference.
“It’s a volunteer board and we’re all public employees, so we do this on nights, weekends, lunch hours,” Strickland said. There were about 20 people on the core planning team and roughly 350 volunteers setting up a disaster demonstration and other conference happenings, Strickland said. “It’s a huge effort, a huge lift, but it’s worth it at the end of the day.
At the sessions on Wednesday and Thursday, security professionals heard presentations by the first responders who dealt with numerous terrorist attacks and other tragedies.
Rachel Skidmore, Las Vegas Metropolitan Emergency Management, spoke in great detail about the response to the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in U.S. history. Brian Manley, Austin Police Chief, discussed the March 2018 Austin City bombing investigation. Tania Glenn, of Tania Glen & Associates, described meeting the mental health needs of first responders.
Other speakers included Nicholas Del Re, the Chief in Charge of FDNY Haz-Mat; Joseph Esposito, NYC Emergency Management Commissioner; and Stephen Cichoki, US Northern Command. Cichoki live-streamed a demonstration of a biological, radiological and nuclear response.
The shared experience of people from various parts of the U.S. illustrated the purpose of the event, Strickland said.
“That’s really the whole point of the conference — bringing people from across the country together in one space to share best practices,” he said.
Immigration advocates did not share Strickland’s view on the conference as a unifying event, however.
The organization Fight for Immigrants and Refugees Everywhere said the event was a mere public relations tool to garner goodwill for DHS. The advocacy group said New York City should not have hosted the event at the same time as leaders, including Mayor Bill de Blasio condemn, ICE for invading the daily life of immigrants, especially in Queens.
“The Conference is an enormous propaganda event for the Department of Homeland Security and private security contractors, responsible for the detention and deportation of millions of migrants,” the organization wrote on its Facebook page.
In June, ICE arrested pizza delivery man Pablo Villavicencio at the Ft. Hamilton military base in Brooklyn when he failed to show adequate identification. Military police detained Villavicencio, a Queens resident, and ICE took him to jail. Villavicencio is an undocumented immigrant and a father of two American citizens. He is also married to an American citizen.
Later that month, 14 New York lawmakers, including Queens’ entire congressional delegation, signed a letter to the ICE New York field office director advocating for the release of Villavicencio.
“Living in the United States, he has dedicated his life to his family — his daughters and wife — whom are all U.S. citizens,” the letter reads. “Mr. Villavicencio’s friends, family and the greater community at large request that he be granted release from custody as he exercises the right to exhaust all his legal options before being removed from the United States.”
Several local lawmakers, including State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), have joined the Abolish ICE movement. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic nominee in the election for the 14th Congressional covering parts of Queens and the Bronx, has also been a vocal advocate for cutting funding to ICE, which was founded in 2003.
Protestors outside the conference said the city should scale back its embrace of a conference featuring companies that profit off immigration crackdowns and detention.
“We are in New York City against the National Homeland Security Conference being here hosted in our city, and to call out Bill de Blasio for being a keynote speaker,” protestor Sarah Olle told the website Democracy Now. “He says that he supports our sanctuary city here in New York, but we know that the NYPD continues to collaborate with ICE and target noncitizens who are here in New York.”