As misguided young men have engaged in violent attacks on Latino immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y., some local politicians on the sidelines have been playing the role of cheerleaders. Far from acting as peacemakers, they have fed the atmosphere of hostility with rhetorical attacks of their own.
County Executive Steve Levy isn't the only public official engaging in the verbal immigrant-bashing, or the most extreme. But he is the highest-ranking, and since he was elected to his first term in November 2003 after promising a crackdown on illegal immigrants, Levy has been acting like the enabler-in-chief.
Soon after taking office, Levy proposed that Suffolk County police officers be empowered to detain Latinos solely on suspicion of being undocumented immigrants and turn them over to federal authorities for deportation. Police unions blocked the proposal, arguing that it would compromise public safety by making immigrants all the more wary of providing information about criminal activity.
In June 2005, Levy oversaw zoning violation raids on 11 houses in Farmingville and the eviction of 200 Latino day laborers and their family members. He then refused to meet with immigrant-rights advocates. "I'm not one who's going to be intimidated by their antics or marches," he said. "Bring it on."
Later the same month, Levy mocked demonstrators who protested the raids. "I will not back down to this one percent lunatic fringe," he said. "They evidently do not like me much because I am one of the few officials who are not intimidated by their politically correct histrionics."
At a forum in 2006, he said that women crossing the border to give birth in the United States "free of charge" were having "anchor babies," and he asserted that Southampton Hospital was on the verge of closing its maternity ward because of the births. The ward remained open.
In 2007, Levy was interviewed by The New York Times about his championing of local ordinances designed to drive undocumented immigrants out of the county. "People who play by the rules work hard to achieve the suburban dream of the white picket fence," Levy told the newspaper. "If you live in the suburbs, you do not want to live across the street from a house where 60 men live. You do not want trucks riding up and down the block at 5 a.m., picking up workers."
As part of his efforts to protect the suburban dream, Levy co-founded Mayors and Executives for Immigration Reform, a national group that promotes immigrant-cleansing ordinances. He described critics of the organization as "Communists" and "anarchists."
In the days after the Nov. 8, 2008, slaying of Marcelo Lucero, Levy at first minimized the significance of the hate-crime murder. Had it happened elsewhere, he said, it would have been just a "one-day story."
That comment outraged Latinos and Suffolk County activists, among others, and Levy backpedaled. He apologized about a week later.
But Levy also denied any link between Lucero's death and his administration's targeting of undocumented Latino immigrants. "Advocates for those here illegally should not disparage those opposed to the illegal immigration policy as being bigoted or intolerant," he said.
It wasn't long before Levy was back to making flippant comments about Lucero's murder. While speaking to a gathering of business people, he compared the difficulties he was having in dealing with the fallout of the killing to the discomfort of undergoing a colonoscopy.