Climate of Fear: Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y.
Less than one year ago, on Nov. 8, 2008, Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant, was murdered in the town of Patchogue, N.Y. The killing, police say, was carried out by a gang of teenagers who called themselves the Caucasian Crew and targeted Latino residents as part of a sport they termed "beaner-hopping." It highlighted a growing national problem — violent hatred directed at all suspected undocumented immigrants, Latinos in particular. Officials in Suffolk County, N.Y., where Patchogue is located, minimized the tragedy, with the county executive even suggesting that it would have been a mere "one-day story" if not for earlier publicity about his and other residents' anti-immigrant activism over the prior decade.
But the reality was that nativist intolerance and hate violence had been festering for years in Suffolk County, fostered by some of the very same officials who were now wishing the story away. The situation in Suffolk County, in fact, is a microcosm of a problem facing the entire United States, where FBI statistics suggest a 40% rise in anti-Latino hate crimes between 2003 and 2007, the latest numbers available. The number of hate groups in America has been rising, too, climbing more than 50% since 2000, mainly by exploiting the issue of undocumented non-white immigration.
In the aftermath of the Lucero murder, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) sent a Spanish-speaking researcher to Suffolk County to interview Latino residents, both documented and undocumented, over a period of months. What SPLC found was frightening. The Lucero murder, while the worst of the violence so far, was hardly an isolated incident. Latino immigrants in Suffolk County are regularly harassed, taunted, and pelted with objects hurled from cars. They are frequently run off the road while riding bicycles, and many report being beaten with baseball bats and other objects. Others have been shot with BB guns or pepper-sprayed. Most will not walk alone after dark; parents often refuse to let their children play outside. A few have been the targets of arson attacks and worse. Adding to immigrants' fears is the furious rhetoric of groups like the now-defunct Sachem Quality of Life, whose long-time spokesman regularly referred to immigrants as "terrorists." The leader of another nativist group, this one based in California, was one of many adding their vitriol, describing a "frightening" visit to an area where Latinos are concentrated in Suffolk: "They urinate, they defecate, [they] make sexual overtures to women."
Fueling the fire are many of the very people who are charged with protecting the residents of Suffolk County — local politicians and law enforcement officials. At one point, 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, is no friend of immigrants, either. When criticized by a group of immigrant advocates, for example, Levy called the organization a den of "Communists" and "anarchists." At the same time, immigrants told the SPLC that the police were, at best, indifferent to their reports of harassment, and, at worst, contributors to it. Many said police did not take their reports of attacks seriously, often blaming the victim instead. They said they are regularly subjected to racial profiling while driving and often to illegal searches and seizures. They said there's little point in going to the police, who are often not interested in their plight and instead demand to know their immigration status.
Although Suffolk County is not unique — many communities across the United States are undergoing similar racial conflicts and rapid demographic changes — there are several concrete measures county officials could take to remedy what has been a worsening problem there for a decade:
• First, local politicians should halt their angry demagoguery on the issue of immigration. There is abundant evidence that Suffolk County officials have contributed substantially to an atmosphere conducive to racial violence.
• Second, the county and state legislatures should mandate that crime victims and witnesses not be asked their immigration status during criminal investigations. As long as they are, immigrants will be unwilling to come out of the shadows to report crimes against themselves and others.
• Third, law enforcement officials should train officers to ensure that they take seriously cases of hate-motivated crime. Until they do, Latino residents will continue to distrust law enforcement officials and avoid cooperation.
• Fourth, the county should maintain accurate hate crime statistics that are readily available to the public. Doing so will help guide county leaders and residents in confronting the problem of hate-motivated violence.
• Fifth, the county should promote educational programs in the public schools to encourage respect for diversity and opposition to hatred. In the end, educating the next generation is the only permanent antidote to hate.
If these measures are taken to combat an increasingly volatile situation, it's likely that angry passions in Suffolk can be cooled and a rational debate on immigration and its consequences begun. The alternative is that the county continues to foster a dangerous growth of violent racial intolerance and nativism — a climate of fear.
Mark Potok is the director of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which produced this report.
Sarah Reynolds was the lead researcher for this report, conducting interviews and research in Suffolk County, N.Y. David Holthouse was the principal author. Other staffers of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) who contributed include project manager Heidi Beirich, design director Russell Estes, designer Valerie Downes, copy editor Melissa Henninger and researcher Janet Smith. Photographs were taken by Lowell Handler, Carlos Morales and Sarah Reynolds. The report was edited by Mark Potok and Rob Waters of the SPLC, along with contributing editor Henry Fernandez, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Special thanks to the Hagedorn Foundation for its generous support of this project. Thanks also to the Center for American Progress.