Friday, December 5, 2008

Hot rhetoric fuels Latino hate crimes



Commentary By Raul Reyes

Seven teenagers have been charged in the tragic death last month of Marcelo Lucero, a 38-year-old immigrant who worked at a dry cleaner. Police say Lucero was on his way to a friend's house in Patchogue, N.Y., when a gang of drunken high schoolers out to jump "a Mexican" surrounded him. Lucero was attacked and then fatally stabbed in the chest.

I suppose it doesn't matter that Patchogue is a comfortable, relatively crime-free suburb on Long Island. Or that Lucero wasn't even Mexican; he was from Ecuador. The sad truth is that Lucero's death is part of a national trend of violence against Latinos. According to new statistics from the FBI, we are the No. 1 target of hate crimes motivated by ethnicity or national origin. In 2007, 62% of such victims were Hispanic.

Yet these statistics might not show the full picture. A 2005 Justice Department report asserted that the actual number of hate crimes exceeded the FBI's numbers.The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group, confirms that many hate crimes are not reported. Many illegal immigrants, no doubt fearing deportation, would be reluctant to contact law enforcement.

The Patchogue killing reminds me of an incident this summer in Shenandoah, Pa., in which four teens were charged in the death of an illegal Mexican immigrant.

What do these two communities have in common? An increase in the Latino population and a corresponding rise in anti-immigrant sentiments.

Today, the national anti-immigration fervor has subsided as the economy has cooled, but it's fair to assume that some violence against Latinos is a byproduct of the xenophobic debate of previous years. Hate crimes directed at Latinos rose 40% during the past four years — a time frame that roughly corresponds to the failure of attempts at comprehensive reform. Some politicians and activists who oppose illegal immigration often have engaged in or encouraged anti-Hispanic rhetoric. They don't seem to realize that inflammatory language can incite inflammatory acts.

It saddens and angers me that Latinos must still live with the threat of violence simply because of their ethnicity. I am worried, too, that in these tough economic times, fear and anxiety will be directed at the wrong targets. Hate speech can hurt, and sometimes kill.

If and when this country revisits the immigration issue under an Obama administration, we should engage in a debate that is good for all of us — rather than one that vilifies and endangers some of us.

Raul Reyes is an attorney in New York and a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

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