Oscar Parraga is an ideal candidate for the Hempstead Volunteer Fire Department. He is the president of a local fire protection company. He has previous fire fighting experience. And he wants to give back to the community he has called home for the last five years.
But though Parraga lawfully resides in the United States, he is not a citizen, and until recently, he was barred from even applying to the Hempstead Volunteer Fire Department because of a policy that required all applicants to be citizens.
When the New York Civil Liberties Union learned of the citizenship requirement last spring, we immediately began working with Parraga to advocate for change. We wrote a letter to the fire chief and the village attorney alerting them that the citizenship requirement was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Fortunately, the department quickly agreed to change it. After a series of votes by the department’s governing council, the admission policy has been amended to allow non-citizens to apply to be volunteer firefighters. The revised policy requires applicants to submit proof of lawful residence.
We are delighted that fire department officials understood that forbidding non-citizens from applying was discriminatory, and we applaud them for changing the requirement. Such citizenship requirements not only violate the Constitution but also isolate the immigrant community and create distrust between public officials and the people they serve. In Hempstead, which according to the latest census data is about 33 percent foreign born, a policy forbidding non-citizens also severely limits the pool of qualified applicants.
Naturally, the revised policy is great news for Parraga, whose passion for firefighting stems from his childhood in Ecuador where his grandfather was the chief of a local fire department. Parraga worked as a firefighter in Ecuador, and upon moving to the United States opened up his own fire safety company, Do It Fire Protection Inc., which installs and repairs fire protection equipment in homes and businesses.
He is currently in the midst of the application process and expects to join the department next month. Parraga is excited to have the opportunity to use his experience and expertise to protect his neighbors. This is also great news for Hempstead. It means more people are eligible to serve their community as volunteer firefighters.
The Hempstead Volunteer Fire Department made the right choice. We hope that other volunteer fire departments across Long Island and the state take a look at their policies and follow Hempstead’s example.
Samantha Fredrickson, Esq., is the Nassau Chapter Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.