Key Finding: Only 46% Say They Have Confidence in Police

Eduardo, a young Latino man in New Orleans, was walking to a store when he and his friends were accosted by a group of young men. The men pulled guns on Eduardo and his friends and beat them up.

The robbers took their money and telephones, leaving the young men on the street to walk home.

Such crimes have become so pervasive in the Latino world that a phrase has been coined to describe them — "amigo shopping."1

Latino immigrants like Eduardo have, in fact, become prime targets for robbery and other crimes. One reason is that because most undocumented immigrants can't open bank accounts, criminals know they are more likely than others to be carrying large sums of cash. Day laborers are particularly vulnerable.

"They've been dubbed walking ATMs," said Eva San Martin, an advocate working in New Orleans.

There's another reason criminals target Latino immigrants: They often don't report crimes, ensuring that criminals face little prospect of arrest.

In Eduardo's case, like many others, no one called the police.

In addition to robbery and theft, Latinos increasingly are the victims of crimes motivated by hate. FBI statistics show a 40 percent rise in hate crimes against Latinos between 2003 and 2007.2 The FBI statistics do not break down the hate crimes against Latinos by region.

These hate crimes are in no way limited to the South. In a recent case that sent shockwaves throughout the nation, Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero was stabbed to death in Patchogue, N.Y., during an attack by a group of teens on Nov. 8, 2008. Prosecutors say seven teenage boys attacked Lucero as part of their regular pattern of "beaner hopping." One told police, "I don't go out doing this very often, maybe once a week."3

No Confidence in Police

In the SPLC survey, only 46 percent of the respondents said they have confidence in police. In south Georgia, only 27 percent said they are confident in the police.

These complaints indicate a serious trend that may be impossible to accurately measure. The survey findings suggest that the number of unreported crimes is high and that the toll it takes on a community is great.

Erandi, a Latina in Tennessee, said "there are thousands of injustices, hour after hour, every minute. What is told in the news is half of what people [go through]. I don't think the news has enough time to report the many injustices that happen."

Interviews for this report suggest that immigrants in the South often make a wholly rational choice in deciding not to report crime.

That's because local police are increasingly involved in enforcing immigration law. If a victim does not have the proper documentation to be living legally in the United States, reporting a crime carries the distinct risk of being jailed and deported. Even those who are here legally may fear harassment or may not report crimes because they want to protect friends, family members and witnesses from that risk.

The Police Chiefs Guide to Immigration Issues, published by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in July 2007, also recognized the reluctance of immigrants to report crime and cited possible causes.

"Ethnic minorities are often afraid of the perceived potential for racial profiling and prejudice towards them by the police and the communities they reside in," the guide stated. "This dynamic results in fear and distrust in the immigrant community and a general lack of cooperation with law enforcement."4

The obvious result of this reluctance to go to the police is that criminals who might otherwise be locked up are not caught and prosecuted, leaving them free to victimize others.

It's not uncommon for crime victims to become targets of an investigation that can ultimately lead to deportation.

"Sometimes we are scared of filing a complaint because [the police] see it as a way of asking us for legal status," said Gabriela, a Latina in Nashville. "So this is when we say, 'Never mind, I will remain silent.' They robbed me and there is nothing that I can do about it because: What if they deport me? That is the fear that one has with the police. We have to allow all of these things so that we are not deported."

Matilde has watched the immigrant community in North Carolina grow more fearful of the police over time. He came to the United States from El Salvador and was granted temporary protected immigration status.

"One loses trust [in the police]," he said. "Now, you call and say, 'I've been robbed,' and they hear you are Hispanic. They start to ask you many things before they arrive. They ask if you have legal status. Because of this, you are afraid to call."

This puts one vulnerable group, in particular, at greater risk. Matilde said he has seen an increase in domestic violence as more battered women opt against calling police for fear they will be asked about their immigration status. This can leave women defenseless against physical abuse.

Efforts to encourage immigrants to report crime have presented their own problems. The U-visa was created by Congress in 2000 to grant temporary legal status to crime victims who are cooperating with a police investigation.

It took eight years for the federal government to issue the first U-visa. By the end of 2008, it had issued just 65 U-visas, a Los Angeles Times investigation found. About 13,300 people have applied for these visas, and 20 have been denied. Immigrant advocates have urged faster action to encourage victims to come forward and assist police.

287(G) Discourages Cooperation with Police

Latinos appear even less likely to contact law enforcement in areas where there are 287(g) agreements that allow local or state police to enforce federal immigration law. Both documented and undocumented immigrants, as well as Latino U.S. citizens, told the SPLC that the program made them fearful of the police and reluctant to call the police if they are victimized.

These findings were illustrated in survey responses from two cities with 287(g) agreements — Nashville and Charlotte. In Nashville, 73 percent of Latinos surveyed said they are more reluctant to cooperate with police because of 287(g). In Charlotte, two-thirds of individuals (66 percent) reported that the agreement affected their willingness to speak with the police.

"ICE is killing us little by little," said Leticia Alvarez, organizing director for the Tennessee Immigrants Refugee Rights Coalition. "People are now afraid to leave their homes and go in the street."

4. Police Chiefs Guide to Immigration Issues, International Association of Chiefs of Police, July 2007, p. 21.

Photo by Stacey Vaeth Gonzalez