Voices from the Shadows
Suffolk County, N.Y. — Orlando, a 23-year-old immigrant from Guatemala, arrived in Suffolk County in 2005. He earns $11 an hour building tennis courts "for rich people," he says. He lives in a tiny rented room in Riverhead that he shares with his pet guinea pig, Sarita María. It contains his bed, a small television and Sarita María's cage. On top of the cage, Orlando's toothpaste, toothbrush and dental floss are lined up in a neat row on a folded towel. The room is immaculate.
Orlando moved to this tiny room after a white neighbor assaulted him outside his previous residence on Oct. 3, 2008. Orlando was celebrating his birthday with a group of friends around a barbecue. Around 10 p.m., he recalls, the man who lived down the street came over to complain about the music and the smoke from the grill.
Here is Orlando's account, related to an investigator for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Spanish, of what happened next:
The man was drunk, and he came to cause trouble. One of my friends went to talk with him so there would not be any problems but [the neighbor] started to offend us, saying we were immigrants and we should not be in America, because we were stealing work from Americans, a lot of things like that. One of my friends tried to hold him back, and [the neighbor] hit him in the head with a flashlight. My friend's head opened up in a wound. I went to try and help him and [the neighbor] then hit my head as well. Then he ran.
The police came, and he did not want to come out of his house. He said that we had started it. He lied. He said that we were looking for trouble and we would not let people sleep. Even the neighbors in the house right next to us supported this man and said it was our fault.
Orlando said the police asked him if he wanted to file charges and he said no because he did not want to cause any trouble.
There is a lot of discrimination [in Suffolk County]. They say, excuse the word, "Fucking immigrant, you should return to your country, you're just here to rob us." But we're the ones getting beaten and robbed, and the police do nothing. There are many Latinos here that work more than Americans, but there are a lot of Americans here that treat Latinos like garbage. Like we are worth nothing.
Because these Americans know that Hispanic people stay quiet, they make fun of us, they attack us, they steal from us, and they get away with it.
The great majority of Latino victims of hate crimes interviewed for this report said they were too fearful of retribution — from their assailants, local authorities or both — to speak without assurances that they would be identified only by first name and country of origin.
Carlos Morales, a Latino immigrant community organizer in Suffolk County, was one of only two victims who agreed to give their full names. Morales, 30, came from Mexico City in 1998. When he first arrived, he was homeless. He slept outside in cardboard boxes, often behind a church in Farmingville. In 1999, when the immigrant-bashing organization Sachem Quality of Life was at the height of its power, Morales was run over by a car and beaten in one of the area's first anti-immigrant attacks.
Here is how he tells his story:
The laundromat where I worked closed at 10:30, and around 11 at night, I was riding home on my bike. I was crossing the street and there was a car coming. First, they stopped for me to cross the street, and then, when I am crossing, they ran me over. When I fell on the ground, they got out of the car and kicked me. They took baseball bats out of the back of their car. They hit me on my knees, in the face, on my back. One of them put his foot on my mouth and said, "You should go back to where you come from, you dirty Mexican." And he continued to hit me.
There is a bar nearby, and the people at the bar heard the noise and came running out. The [attackers] got in their car and drove away. They left me in a bad state — on the ground, really beaten. The people that came out of the bar called the police and the ambulance came and got me.
I remember when I was in the ambulance, the [paramedic] who was putting the sheet on me, he said to me: "This happened to you because you are here. If you were not here, this would not have happened." He said it in a sarcastic way because he did not like that I was a Mexican. I remember his face because he was laughing at me. It is something I will never forget because I could not say anything. I was hurt, and he was the one with the ambulance. When I was learning English, I could understand a lot of things but I couldn't speak well, I couldn't say what I really wanted to say.
The ambulance brought me to the hospital. I was there with a dislocated shoulder and fractured knees, both knees fractured. I still have knee problems. When it is really cold, I have a lot of pain in my knees. Also, I lost my two front teeth when they hit me in the mouth with a baseball bat.
That was my first experience of racial hate. I had heard of other attacks. I knew people who had been attacked but I didn't think it would happen to me, especially not in this way. I had experienced other incidents, like customers in the laundromat giving me looks where you know you're not welcome. But I never thought it would reach this level, that people could have so much hate, to beat you so much, so hard.
No one was ever arrested.
In the beginning, it affected me in a negative way because I felt a lot of anger. I started to feel like all Americans are bad people. You cannot trust them. It changed the way I was. I was always ready to fight. I turned into a very defensive person with other people. I was like that for about two years, I think, really angry with people, always thinking to do the same to other people that they had done to me. But after two years, I started working in the community, and I began to get better. Now, whenever I am walking or riding my bike, I always try to stay alert and see if there are witnesses around or not.
I try to convince people who are attacked to come forward with their own stories, but it's hard to bring them out. The majority of people don't tell these stories outside of the [immigrant] community. Inside the community, you hear the new stories that are happening almost every day, constantly, in one form or another. For someone that does not know what it's like for us, they would think that all the stories were invented, but these are the things that happen to people every day.
Here are the accounts of four other Latino victims of violence in Suffolk County, in their own words:
David (from Peru): There's one house I walked by and someone was standing at the front door. He was saying, "Hey," and started throwing rocks at me. He pointed up to the top floor where a man was leaning out the window with a rifle pointed at me.
David and his brother also reported being menaced by black youths armed with chains and samurai swords who made anti-immigrant comments, and working at a factory where the manager regularly shoves immigrant employees and uses racial epithets.
Diego (Mexico): It was dusk a few weeks ago [mid-May 2009], and I was riding my bike through town. A car pulled over and a few kids got out and started shooting me with rubber pellet guns from about 10 feet away. They shot me repeatedly. I held up my backpack to protect my face, and they stole my bike. I didn't report it or anything. It's not worth missing a day of work to go and report a crime when [the police] won't do anything about it. … During the day, we all feel better, safer, but at night I walk with two or three friends to be protected.
"Santos" (Mexico): I was driving through Brentwood April 11 , and a car pulled out into the road and hit my car. Two [white] passengers got out and started yelling, "Stupid Mexican!" When I got out of my car to talk with them, they pushed and kicked me until the cops arrived. The police let them go even though I complained about their assaulting me. Two weeks later, I received a police report saying the accident was my fault. The report says nothing about them hitting me.
"Francisco" (Ecuador): One evening in the summer of 2006, I was leaving a deli when I was confronted by four kids, all about 16 years old. They said, "Fucking immigrant,"and told me to go back to Mexico." They grabbed me and threw me against the building. I fell down and they started kicking me and they left me there. It was around 5 p.m., still light outside. The police came and took a report but I never heard from them again. My shoulder was injured and cost me $1,200 in hospital bills. I paid the bills myself. Now, I never go outside alone.
An SPLC investigator also recorded the description by Aníbal, a 22-year-old immigrant from Mexico, of an attack by his former employer. This happened on Nov. 23, 2008, his medical records show. Aníbal says that when he showed up 30 minutes late for a flooring job, his boss started punching him as soon as he stepped out of his car at the job site, breaking his nose with the first blow. Here's what he says happened next:
My boss continued the attack. Then he said that if I went to the police, he would go to immigration and get me deported and also he would not pay me the $2,500 I was due, so I better shut up. I went to Sister Margaret [Smyth, a local nun and immigrant advocate], and she encouraged me to report what happened to the police and go to the hospital. So I did, even though I was afraid of being deported.
One week later, I went to the police station to get a copy of my report for my records. They said they couldn't just give me one, that I had to fill out an application, send it in, and I would have the report in about three months. I filled it out, but I have received nothing from the police. My hospital bills total about $4,800. I don't spend much time in the streets anymore. I'm afraid.
Javier Monroy, 56, is another immigrant who understands the twin pressures of constant fear and looming hospital bills. Early one morning in March 2008, Monroy was throwing a coffee cup into a garbage can outside a 24-hour pharmacy in Farmingville when a passing car pulled into the parking lot. He remembers hearing a door slam. Then something struck him in the head so hard it knocked him nearly unconscious. He says he fell to the ground and couldn't defend himself. He was hit at least 10 times, he says, by something harder than a fist -— most likely a chunk of wood or a metal pole, he thinks. The attackers stole his wallet and continued to beat him.
Bleeding heavily from a head wound, he was taken to a hospital, where he remained for five days, waiting to see if he needed surgery. It took eight staples to close his wound, and his badly bruised arm still hurts a lot in cold weather.
Monroy says he remembers giving a report to a police officer, but says nothing ever came of it. When he went to the hospital to have the staples removed, the hospital staff demanded that he pay $300 up front. He didn't have the money, so his cousin extracted them at home after soaking the staples in hot water and soap.
Last November, just after the murder of Marcelo Lucero, Monroy was invited to attend a gathering at a church in Patchogue with Father Dwight Wolter. He was invited into a room to speak with someone who introduced himself as a detective. Two other people were present, and all wore suits; Monroy thought maybe they were police or city employees but he wasn't sure — they did not identify themselves. He asked for names and business cards, and they said they had run out. They asked to hear his story, so he told them what happened when he was attacked. They asked a few questions and said they would call him back. Monroy has not heard from them since, or from the police. But he's hounded by collection agencies demanding payment of his hospital bills, which exceed $30,000.
When he lived in Mexico, Monroy recalls, he liked to watch police-glorifying reality shows from the United States, and he remembers being impressed by the police, especially by their eloquent squad-car soliloquies about how they'd joined the force to help regular people. He is disillusioned with the reality in Suffolk County.
Orlando, the Guatemalan immigrant, shares Monroy's disappointment with the apparent priorities of at least some Suffolk law enforcement officers.
For example, he says, one night in April 2008 he went to pick up his girlfriend, who's from the United States, to take her out to dinner. He parked his car just past her house, in front of another house, locked it and walked up to his girlfriend's residence. When they returned together a short time later, four police cars had surrounded his car, and officers were walking around. Orlando pressed the unlock button on his remote control as he approached the car, and the police officers, perhaps startled by the beep-beep sound of the alarm deactivating, reached for their guns, but did not pull them out of their holsters.
Orlando asked what was wrong in his limited English, but the officers shoved him against his car and patted him down. They demanded his license and registration. They said that someone had called in a report of a suspicious vehicle. Several times, they asked him how many times he'd driven through his girlfriend's neighborhood before parking. Just once, he kept saying. When they started asking him about where he worked and where he lived, his girlfriend yelled at them in fluent English to leave him alone, and they left.
Orlando says this kind of law enforcement interaction is typical for undocumented immigrants in Suffolk County, which is why they're reluctant to file charges or even report hate crime assaults and ethnic intimidation.
To illustrate his point, he recounts this incident from May 2009:
I was in my car at a traffic light and I saw about four white high school kids, about 16 or 17 years old, harassing two Latino men in the parking lot of a Walgreens. The white kids were yelling and pushing the Latinos. They had encircled them. They were humiliating them, insulting them. I was about five meters away in my car when I parked, so I could see and hear what happened.
One of the high school kids started to push one of the Latinos like he wanted to fight. But the Latino guy, he did nothing, because, this is what I'm telling you — Latinos here are afraid. They are afraid if they defend themselves they'll get put in jail or deported, because the police are not fair.
Next, I saw all four of the high school kids start to kick one of the Latino men. I got out of my car. I told them, "Why are you doing this?" They said they were just playing. I told them they were racists. I told the Latinos they were stupid. I said, "Why are you letting them do this?" I told them, "Defend yourselves!" But they said no. They were too worried about the police.
It's like what I said. Too many Latinos are terrified. They are terrified to know that if they defend themselves, they get taken away in handcuffs.
Practically, as an immigrant, you don't have any rights here.
Because we're just "the illegals."