Tone of immigration debate promotes hatred
King Features Syndicate
Feb. 16, 2009



Opinion by Maria Elena Salinas

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

In New York's Suffolk County, a group of teenagers seems to have picked up a morbid new hobby. It's no longer, "Hey, why don't we go hang out on a street corner?" or even "Let's go break into cars." What the seven young boys, 16 and 17 years of age, were doing as a hobby was going out and "beating up Mexicans."

Unfortunately for Marcelo Lucero, he happened to cross their path on a Saturday night last November on his way to a friend's house in downtown Patchogue. He was not a Mexican — he was from Ecuador — but the random attack against him was simply because of his ethnic appearance. Lucero was beaten up and stabbed to death. The teenagers have been arrested and will be prosecuted. Their trial is set to begin Feb. 18.

Lucero's murder was a blow to his family in Ecuador and in New York, as well as to his friends and neighbors, who describe him as a quiet and kind man, always looking for ways to help others. But his death helped to uncover a gruesome pattern of behavior by the youths. It turns out Lucero was just the latest victim of what had turned into a regular and violent pastime: hunting down Hispanics to attack them.

Authorities believe that these teenagers had been targeting their victims for more than a year and that other youths may be involved. Victims were picked at random, walking down the street, riding bicycles, washing clothes in Laundromats. One of the teenagers involved told police, "I don't go out doing this very often, maybe once a week."

The publicity surrounding Lucero's case prompted others to report similar attacks. Prosecutors were able to come up with at least eight other Latino victims who were attacked during a 14-month period.

This case led the Suffolk County Commission to set up a task force to investigate hate crimes. Not only have these young men been out there committing crimes, but the crimes have not been reported because of fear, and the ones that were reported were ignored by police.

The 13-member task force is supposed to look into why these hate crimes have been overlooked and what is causing the racial tensions in the county.

What is happening in Suffolk County is only a reflection of similar situations across the country. According to the FBI, hate crimes against Latinos rose in 2007. There were 1,256 offenses reported, based on the perceived ethnicity or national origin of a person, and of those, 61.6 percent were against Latinos. In the past four years, there has been a 40 percent rise in hate crimes.

The Southern Poverty Law Center says there also has been a major increase in hate groups. These grew from 602 in the year 2000 to 888 by 2007, an increase of 48 percent. White-supremacist groups that normally target Jews or blacks are now going after Latinos. They believe the growth of these hate groups is motivated mostly by the immigration debate.

It shouldn't be complicated to figure out why hate crimes have risen as much as they have in Suffolk County, or any other county in the United States. There is a clear pattern here. When you have politicians and media commentators constantly accusing immigrants of taking jobs away from Americans, of littering our streets, of spreading disease, of threatening our culture, and categorizing them as criminals, someone is bound to think he or she has the liberty to eliminate them without any consequences.

When you have immigration authorities raiding homes and businesses, and rounding up immigrants, locking them up and deporting them, it's not unusual for someone out there with a sick mind to think that he or she is actually doing social cleansing by singling out Latinos and treating them like some kind of plague instead of human beings. It doesn't seem to matter anymore whether they are in the country legally or not — just looking Hispanic is enough to get them insulted, discriminated against, attacked or even killed.

There really is no justification for having teenage boys go out and target people of a specific ethnic group with the intention of hurting them or even just intimidating them. But it would help if those who wield the power and have the attention of the masses would change the tone of the immigration debate. It is not immigrants who are threatening our American values, but rather those who don't value human life who are the real threat to our country.

Contact María Elena Salinas through her Web site,