Books

How Hate and Fear Underscore the Immigration Debate in America

The murder of a working immigrant in a small, suburban town exposes a larger American problem.

Photo Credit: Beacon Press

The following is an excerpt from Mirta Ojito's new book Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town(Beacon Press, 2013): 

Global movement—how to stimulate it and how to harness it—is the topic of this century. Few issues in the world today are as crucial and defining as how to deal with the seemingly endless flow of immigrants making their way to wealthier countries. Even the war against terrorism, which since 9/11 has become especially prominent, has been framed as an immigration challenge: who comes in, who stays out.

The relentless flow of immigrants impacts the languages we speak (consider the ongoing debate over bilingual education and the quiet acceptance in major cities, such as Miami and New York, of the predominance of Spanish), the foods we eat, the people we hire, the bosses we work for, and even the music we dance to. On a larger scale, immigrants affect foreign policy, the debate over homeland security, local and national politics, budget allocations, the job market, schools, and police work. No institution can ignore the role immigrants now play in shaping the daily life of most industrialized countries of the world.

In the United States immigration is at the heart of the nation’s narrative and sense of identity. Yet we continue to be conflicted by it: armed vigilantes patrol the Rio Grande while undocumented workers find jobs every day watching over our children or delivering food to our door. In 2011 members of Congress considered debating if the US-born children of undocumented immigrants ought to be rightful citizens of the country, while in Arizona Latino studies were declared illegal.

While the federal government spends millions of dollars building an ineffective wall at the US-Mexico border, the 11.1 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States wonder if the wall is being built to keep them out or in. In fact, 40 percent of undocumented immigrants, or more than four million people, did not climb a fence or dig a tunnel to get to the United States. They arrived at the nation’s airports as tourists, students, or authorized workers, and simply stayed once their visas expired.

The immigration debate affects not only Hispanic immigrants, who comprise the largest number of foreign-born people in the United States, but all immigrants. The Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, DC, think tank, reported in August 2012 that the number of immigrants (both documented and undocumented) in the country hit a new record of forty million in 2010, a 28 percent increase over the total in 2000.

In a 2007 report researchers at the center generated population projections and examined the impact of different levels of immigration on the size and aging of American society. They found that if immigration continues at current levels, the nation’s population will increase to 468 million in 2060, a 56 percent increase from the current population. Immigrants and their descendants will account for 105 million, 63 percent of that increase. By 2060, one of every three people in the United States will be a Hispanic. Another study, released in 2011 by the Brookings Institution, revealed that “America’s population of white children, a majority now, will be in the minority during this decade.” Already minorities make up 46.5 percent of the population under eighteen.

As a nation we remain stumped over immigration. Are we still a nation of immigrants? Or are we welcoming only to those who follow the rules and, even more, look and act like us? In Suffolk County, the answers are complex.

The county likes people who have legal documents, who speak English, who don’t play volleyball in their backyards late into the night while drinking beer with buddies, who don’t produce a lot of garbage, who pay taxes, who know when and where to put the garbage outside and keep the lid on it, who support—or at least don’t interfere—with school sports programs, who don’t urinate behind 7-Elevens, who don’t look for jobs on the sidewalks, and who keep bushes trimmed and fences painted, preferably white. “As I often say to immigrants,” said John F. “Jack” Eddington, the grandson of Irish immigrants and a former Suffolk County legislator, who lives in Medford but kept his legislative office in Patchogue, “When you move to a new town, the moment you walk in your new house—in fact, before you walk in—stand on the front steps and take a look around. The way people maintain their homes, their lawns, their cars: that’s what you must do.” Paul Pontieri, the mayor of Patchogue, said almost the same words to me in two separate interviews. Others in Patchogue have given similar answers to questions of assimilation. It is clear that in this town—if not the entire country—the notion of what it means to be an American is tightly woven with the idea of home ownership: how to get it, how to keep it, and how to protect it from strangers. And nowhere is home a more sacred, almost sanctified, concept than in suburbia, the very place where, for decades, the middle class has sought refuge from urban blight, despair, poverty, and the kind of social ills that cities confront and suburbia—mythically, at least—narrowly escapes. In the last decades, though, immigrants have been following

jobs to rural and suburban areas. In 2010, census data showed that “immigrant populations rose more than 60 percent in places where immigrants made up fewer than 5 percent of the population in 2000,” while in big cities “the foreign-born population was flat over that period.” The data also showed that the country’s biggest population gains were in suburbia. “But, in a departure from past decades when whites led the rise, now it is because of minorities. More than a third of all 13.3 million new suburbanites were Hispanic.”

A study released in September 2012 by Brown University confirmed that trend, and found that “of the roughly 15,000 places in the country—defined as cities, towns, suburbs or rural areas that govern their own fiscal affairs—some 82.6% were majority white in 2010, down from 93.4% in 1980. Places where whites made up at least 90% of the population fell even more sharply, to 36% in 2010 from 65.8% in 1980.”

And so the process of acculturation that an immigrant used to experience in the anonymity of the city—from learning the essential first English words to understanding how close to stand when speaking to an American—now occurs in the wide-open spaces of suburbia and under the scrutiny of neighbors who worry about property values, taxes, and the height of a blade of grass on the lawn, just like Alba and Logan envisioned so many years ago.

Suffolk County, where the population’s growth in the last two decades has been fueled by immigration, fits squarely in this demographic trend. Some towns have gone from being practically all white to having a 17 percent Latino population. In 2008 the Latino population in Patchogue and Medford, mostly from Ecuador, had reached 24 percent.

In Patchogue, learning how to mow one’s lawn the proper way is a serious, defining matter—a milepost on the road to assimilation. Francisco Hernández, who was born in New York City and moved to Patchogue from Queens, remembers how a neighbor had to teach him what products to use to keep his lawn pristine. “Spanish people [Hispanics or people who speak Spanish] do learn,” he told a documentary filmmaker in 2009. “Look at Raúl, my neighbor. His lawn was like crap. He’s got one of the best lawns now in the neighborhood. He won’t let one car park on his lawn.”

Such are the issues that can turn neighbor against neighbor in Suffolk County, particularly if the one who won’t use the right fertilizer speaks a language other than English.

While six of the zip codes in Suffolk County are among the hundred wealthiest in the United States, Patchogue and Medford are predominantly middle-class towns with strip malls and pizzerias. These are towns where teachers, police officers, and deli owners live, not where Wall Street tycoons vacation or where pint-size Park Avenue trust-fund children learn to ride their first horses. Thus, working-class families that live in places like Patchogue and Medford are likely to view immigrant newcomers not as hired help but as competitors for the jobs they too covet.

Immigrant advocates say that the attitudes young people develop against Hispanics are fueled by the rhetoric they absorb in the hallways and classrooms of their schools, in the news media, or in conversations at home. In fact, research has shown that to be the case. Research has also shown that much of the immigrant- bashing rhetoric is caused by fear.

“I think the difference in the situation now,” Eddington, the former legislator and Medford resident, told me, “is that you have people . . . moving into Patchogue that can’t speak English, didn’t grow up in the community, and I think what happens in that situation is that people become afraid because there are cultural differences.”

It would be easy and convenient to have a villain in this story. Take Jeffrey Conroy, for example, the teenager convicted of killing Lucero. He was seventeen, restless and unruly in school, and he once asked a friend to tattoo his body with symbols of white power: a swastika and a lightning bolt. But many in Suffolk County see Jeffrey as a victim as well—a jock who, though friendly to the Latinos in his circle of friends, absorbed the hateful rhetoric of those around him in positions of authority.

No one had more authority in Suffolk County when Jeffrey was growing up than Steve Levy, a man with such striking anti-immigration views that a report released after Lucero’s death by the Southern Poverty Law Center, of Montgomery, Alabama, called him “The Enabler,” blaming him for fueling the attack on Lucero and others before him. He was fond of calling critics “communists” and “anarchists,” and he cofounded Mayors and Executives for Immigration Reform, a national group that advocates for local ordinances against undocumented immigrants. On one occasion he said that immigrant women were crossing the border to have “anchor babies,” a term used by those who claim the country is under siege by invading Mexicans.

While it is true that Levy was the most vocal and most visible of the Long Island politicians who continuously stoked the flames against immigrants, he wasn’t the only one. More important, shrewd politician that he was, Levy would not have used immigrant bashing as one of the pillars of his campaigns and speeches if he hadn’t recognized that his words would be well received by the majority of the registered voters in the county.

Lucero’s death has left a mark on Patchogue, and placed the village in the eye of the political storm that immigration has become. On the night of November 8, 2008, a Saturday, everyone went to sleep in a town that was almost totally anonymous and awoke the next morning to find satellite trucks in their front yards. Pontieri found out about the attack as he sipped coffee and read the Sunday paper in his backyard. Diana Berthold, a local artist, heard the story on TV. In desperation, and out of habit, she began to quilt. Jean Kaleda, a local librarian, was coming back from a short vacation when a friend told her about it; her stomach lurched at the news.

Film and television crews descended on the town. A half-hour documentary was promptly filmed and released, PBS taped a show, and a local theater group staged a well-received play about the murder. In addition, college students wrote essays about Lucero and hate crimes to win scholarship money. Later a separate scholarship fund was established by the Lucero family to help seniors from the local high school—the same school where the attackers had been students—pay for college. (At the end of 2012, four students had received scholarships ranging from $250 to $500.) A group of about twenty women worked for more than a year on a three-part quilt that has been used in a local anti-hate campaign. Soccer tournaments that include Latino teams have become yearly events spearheaded by Eddington, the former legislator, and a group of Ecuadorians, under the banner of the Lucero Foundation, has met regularly to discuss issues that affect their community. (At a meeting in November 2011, the discussion wavered between two issues: whether to give toys or candy to children at a Christmas gathering, and how to react to a man who disrupted a town parade because Latinos had been included.)

But beyond the headlines, sound bites, and community meetings, and after the satellite trucks left, what remains is daily life in this seemingly sleepy and charming village. [...]. This two-way process of assimilation and adaptation—a drama unfolding every day, in every small and not-so-small town across the United States—is how stereotypes are shaped and cemented, opinions are molded, and political decisions are made. When the process works well, as it usually does, America is at its best: welcoming and gracious, showering newcomers with hand-outs and opportunities like no other country on earth. When it doesn’t, as has been increasingly the case, America is at its worst: parochial, protective, and dismissive of the other. (Arizona and Alabama, with their punitive anti-immigration laws, are relevant examples.)

In Patchogue, Marcelo Lucero thought he had found a home, albeit a temporary one, but to the town he was always a stranger, a foreigner, an invisible other. Pontieri is still upset when he recalls that a few days after Lucero’s death a local Hispanic man approached him to talk about his fears. Pontieri asked him where he lived. Over there, the man said, pointing to a small, white, wood-framed home two doors from the house where Pontieri grew up, the house he visits every day to check on his mother. “How is it that I never saw him?” Pontieri asked me rhetorically. “He’s been living here for years and I never saw him before, and I know everybody in this town.” Four years later, wanting to meet that man, I asked Pontieri what his name was. He had forgotten—or never learned it.

Of course, Pontieri does not know everybody in his village. He didn’t know Lucero either, just like most people in Patchogue. Only in death did they learn his name. Only in death were they forced to see him.

Mirta Ojito is a journalist and the author of Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town.