SPLC Report: Anti-Immigrant Climate Fueling Violence Against Latinos in N.Y. County

Update: Justice Department probe examines police treatment of Latinos

Latino immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y., are routinely the target of violent attacks, harassment and abuse driven by a virulent anti-immigrant climate that has been fostered by community leaders and law enforcement practices, according to a new Southern Poverty Law Center report.

The report — Climate of Fear: Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y. — documents numerous hate crimes against Latinos in the community and describes a volatile, anti-immigrant environment in which many Latinos are reluctant to report attacks. SPLC researchers spent months interviewing Latino immigrants, local religious leaders and small business owners for the report, which includes a 10-year timeline of harassment and violence in the county.

The SPLC began its investigation following the brutal murder of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero in November 2008. Lucero was beaten and stabbed by a group of teenagers who were out "beaner-jumping" in the Suffolk town of Patchogue.

"The murder of Marcelo Lucero was by no means an isolated hate crime but rather part of a wider pattern of violent attacks against Latinos in Suffolk County," said Mark Potok, director of the SPLC Intelligence Project, which produced the report. "For 10 years, political leaders and anti-immigration activists in Suffolk County have demonized Latino immigrants, and the police have appeared indifferent to their plight. We should not be surprised that Latinos are regularly targeted for violence and harassment."

The report includes numerous first-hand accounts of immigrants being punched and kicked by random attackers, beaten with baseball bats or robbed at knifepoint. They say they are regularly taunted, spit upon and pelted with apples, full soda cans, beer bottles and other projectiles.

The anti-immigrant rhetoric in Suffolk County dates back at a least a decade to the founding of Sachem Quality of Life (SQL), a militant anti-immigrant group that spread bogus data claiming Latino immigrants were responsible for sexual assaults, burglaries and other serious crimes. The group stoked anti-immigrant sentiment, repeatedly referring to Latino immigrants as "terrorists" and labeling anyone advocating immigrant rights as traitors.

Local politicians also have fueled the fire. One county legislator said that if he saw an influx of Latino day laborers in his town, "we'll be out with baseball bats." Another said that if Latino workers were to gather in a local neighborhood, "I would load my gun and start shooting, period." A third publicly warned undocumented residents that they "better beware." County Executive Steve Levy, the highest ranking official in Suffolk and a regular immigrant-basher, called a group of immigrant advocates a den of "Communists" and "anarchists." The report also found that Latino immigrants in the county distrust police and do not see a point in reporting crimes. Latino immigrants said police seem, at best, indifferent to their plight, showing little interest in investigating hate crimes. Others said they have been racially profiled.

The result is a Latino community that feels terrorized and targeted.

"We live with the fear that if we leave our houses, something will happen," Luis, a Mexican who migrated to Suffolk County, told SPLC researchers.