Suffolk County, N.Y., was the scene of anti-Latino violence again last November, when seven high school students - six whites and one Hispanic - were charged in the fatal stabbing of an Ecuadorean immigrant in the village of Patchogue. The alleged knife wielder was a three-sport athlete, Jeffrey Conroy, who was charged with crimes including second-degree murder as a hate crime in the slaying of 38-year-old Marcelo Lucero, a dry cleaner employee who had been in the United States for 16 years.
The teenagers decided to go "beaner jumping," authorities said, and other high school students told reporters later that it was only the latest such expedition carried out by their friends. The group spotted Lucero walking near a train station and jumped him while shouting anti-Latino epithets, police said.
Lucero's murder caused many people to suggest that the Long Island county's recent acrimonious debates over local immigration laws and Latino day laborers had created a climate that fostered the violence. The killing followed FBI reports of a nationwide 40% rise in anti-Latino hate crime violence between 2003 and 2007, a period marked by ugly rhetoric from hundreds of nativist groups and politicians. Jack Levin, a hate crime expert at Northeastern University, said such demonizing speech often leads to hate crimes. "Racist rhetoric and dehumanizing images inspire violence," Levin told the Intelligence Report.
County Executive Steve Levy came under particularly concentrated fire after he said that if Lucero had been killed in adjacent Nassau County, "it would be a one-day story." Since taking office in 2004, Levy had, among other measures aimed at immigrants, signed a measure to bar undocumented workers from being hired by county contractors and county licensees, and he clashed often with Long Island pro-immigrant activists.
Levy quickly apologized for the "one-day story" remark. He also announced a five-point plan to promote tolerance in the area and its schools. But tensions over the fast-growing Latino and immigrant population in Suffolk County predate Lucero's murder and Levy's job tenure. Latin American immigrants began moving to the area in the late 1990s, and a hard-line anti-immigration group, Sachem Quality of Life, appeared around the same time in Suffolk County to oppose them.
In 2000, two white men in the Suffolk town of Farmingville stabbed and beat two Mexican day laborers after luring them to a warehouse with promises of work. Two weeks later, Glenn Spencer of the anti-immigrant hate group American Patrol came to Suffolk County to give a fiery speech to the Sachem group, which also received advice from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the country's largest anti-immigration group.
In 2003, again in Farmingville, five teenagers torched the home of five Mexican immigrants, who managed to escape unharmed. A prosecutor said they attacked the home simply because "Mexicans lived there." A few days later, police arrested a member of the Sachem group for threatening another local Latino family.
The Lucero slaying on Long Island was disturbingly similar to an incident four months earlier in the town of Shenandoah, Pa. There, Mexican immigrant Luis Ramirez, who had been in the country for six years picking crops and working in factories, was beaten to death. As in Patchogue, teenagers were charged. As in Patchogue, they were not stereotypical thugs - three of the four played on the local high school's football team. And, as in Patchogue, anti-immigration tensions in the region were already running high when Ramirez was killed.
Less than 20 miles from Shenandoah, Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta, founder of the group Small Town Defenders, received national attention when he spearheaded the city's 2006 passage of an ordinance barring employers from hiring and landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants. Like Steve Levy, Barletta, who ran for Congress in November and lost, said he saw no link between his city's ordinance and Ramirez's beating death.
Unlike in Patchogue, Ramirez's death did not lead to widespread introspection in the community. Although some witnesses said they heard the attackers shout ethnic slurs, Shenandoah's police chief and town manager immediately said the assault wasn't prompted by the victim's ethnicity, even though the chief acknowledged that teens had sprayed racial graffiti and yelled slurs at immigrants in the past. Less than seven weeks after Ramirez died, a boisterous crowd that included several members of the white supremacist Keystone State Skinheads gathered for an anti-illegal immigration rally in Shenandoah. One speaker said Ramirez would still be alive "if he would have stayed in his own country."
Meanwhile, back in the Suffolk County village of Patchogue, ethnic tensions reignited in the aftermath of Lucero's death. Eight young men and women accosted two Latino men as they left a restaurant there, shouting ethnic slurs and shoving one of them, according to the code enforcement officer who intervened. The menacing incident came just three weeks after Lucero was killed.