(*Post updated below.)
Suffolk County, N.Y., the suburban Long Island area where a gang of teenagers — most of them white — are accused of killing Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero last November, is described as a veritable hell for Latino immigrants in a new report to be released Wednesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The civil rights organization sent a Spanish-speaking researcher to Suffolk County to interview over 70 Latino immigrants, plus local activists, small business owners and religious leaders. The picture that emerges in “Climate of Fear: Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y.” is a disturbing one where some residents –especially white youngsters– assault or heckle immigrants on a regular basis; immigrants’ homes are the targets of attacks; police do nothing about the attacks while they harass Latinos over minor traffic violations or for standing on the street; and public officials fan the flames with over-the-top racism-tinged rhetoric.
This has been going on for about a decade, the report says.
Latino immigrants in Suffolk County, “are routinely the target of violent attacks, harassment and abuse driven by a virulent anti-immigrant climate that spans a decade,” says the report, to be released Wednesday morning at a press conference in Hauppauge, Long Island.
The report, written by lead author David Holthouse and others and researched by Sarah Reynolds, asserts that the Lucero murder was not an exception. Rather, the killing is described as the culmination of a trend that began with the arrival of the first Latino immigrants to the mostly white, blue-collar area in towns like Patchogue and Medford. These towns’ “strip malls and pizzerias appear in sharp contrast to the lavish wealth on display elsewhere” in a county that’s home to the Hamptons and encompasses six of the 100 wealthiest ZIP Codes in the nation, the report says.
In addition to the stories of abuse, insults and beatings, the report also documents statements by public officials that help foster an atmosphere conducive to these types of incidents.
It narrates that as far back as August 2001, “County Legislator Michael D’Andre of Smithtown said that if his own town should ever experience an influx of Latino day laborers like that of nearby communities, ‘We’ll be up in arms; we’ll be out with baseball bats.’”
“In March 2007, County Legislator Elie Mystal of Amityville said of Latino immigrants waiting for work on street corners, ‘If I’m living in a neighborhood and people are gathering like that, I would load my gun and start shooting, period. Nobody will say it, but I’m going to say it.'”
Update: The New York Times quoted a statement from Suffolk County police commissioner Richard Dormer in response to the report’s release, which said: “Some of the report had concrete ideas, most of which we are already implementing, but other parts were rife with inaccuracies due to the law center’s failure to interview the Police Department, the district attorney or elected officials.”
SPLC, which investigates white supremacist groups and other extremist organizations across the country, also documents the early emergence of hate groups like the now-defunct Sachem Quality of Life, founded in 1998, “a trendsetting anti-immigrant group whose militant tactics inspired later nativist extremist groups like the Minutemen and Save Our State.”
To compound a climate of fear in which immigrants are left to fend for themselves when they become victims of a crime, the report says police officers “at best… seem indifferent to their plight. At worst, the police contribute to it, in the form of racial profiling, selective enforcement and outright bullying.”
Latino residents report being treated “harshly at nighttime checkpoints after watching Anglo drivers being waved through,” it says.
One telling detail:
“Latinos account for roughly 14% of Suffolk County’s population, but on a typical day in a Suffolk County justice court, they make up nearly half the defendants appearing for motor vehicle violations.”