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Who Is to Blame for Marcelo Lucero's Murder?

Elected officials in Suffolk County have created a xenophobic climate that breeds hate crimes.

SMITHTOWN, N.Y. -- Why here? That's still the question on the minds of many residents of Long Island, the archetypal New York suburb, after the murder of Marcelo Lucero, a 37-year-old Ecuadorean immigrant who was stabbed to death after being attacked by seven teenagers on November 8th.

Lucero's death was labeled a hate killing by local police, who said the teenagers, all locals, embarked on a beer-fueled rampage in search of "a Mexican" to beat up.

"Once more, the blood of our people, of an immigrant, has been spilled on the streets of Suffolk," said Allan B. Ramirez, a congregational pastor, speaking near the street corner where Lucero died.

It was only the latest, and most serious, in a chain of attacks on Latino immigrants in Suffolk County. In 2000, two Mexican day laborers in Farmingville were picked up by men ostensibly offering them work and were nearly beaten to death with gardening tools. Three years later, local teenagers firebombed a home, and the immigrant family of five living in it barely escaped with their lives. Low-level harassment is even more common. Community leaders say Latinos are regularly taunted, spit upon and pelted with projectiles.

This ugliness is belied by Suffolk's surface peace and orderliness. It is a land of strip malls, corporate parks and idyllic towns and villages occupying Long Island's eastern two-thirds.

Local soul-searching over the crime has focused on whether local politicians are partly to blame for Lucero's death. Immigrant advocates say elected officials, through legislation and rhetoric, have created a xenophobic climate that breeds hate crimes.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy and his allies in the local legislature have very publicly championed measures aimed at stemming illegal immigration. Levy has won some of these battles (requiring county contractors to check workers' status, cracking down on landlords with overcrowded housing) but lost others, most notably an effort to deputize local law enforcement to nab illegal immigrants.

Levy, an extremely popular, brash Democrat first elected in 2003, also co-founded a national group called Mayors & Executives for Immigration Reform. He has been a guest on Lou Dobbs Tonight , the CNN show known for Dobbs' strident coverage of illegal immigration.

Meanwhile, Suffolk's Latino population -- a diverse mosaic of Salvadorans, Colombians, Dominicans, Ecuadoreans and Mexicans -- has continued booming. Suffolk is 13 percent Latino, according to U.S. Census figures.

The contradictions of life in today's Long Island were apparent recently at a county legislative session. A low-slung brick building in a governmental complex off a highway in Smithtown, the legislature's usual business is the day-to-day management of suburbia. In a typical session, lawmakers might handle zoning, traffic problems and citizens' complaints regarding trash pick-up.

On the morning of Nov. 18, however, the legislators got an earful about their portion of responsibility in Lucero's murder, which happened 10 days earlier.

The morning began normally, with resolutions to commend community heroes: a little girl who had won a blueberry muffin baking contest, a sporting goods retailer that donated equipment to the "Fighting 69th" National Guard unit in Afghanistan, a policeman who saved the life of a man trapped in a car. The legislature's presiding officer, William J. Lindsay, cheerily announced that a fifth grade class from a local elementary school in Bohemia was watching the proceedings.

Then came the public portion, when citizens are allowed to speak out, and the tone changed immediately.

Charlotte Koons of the Suffolk New York Civil Liberties Union was the first speaker. She read a poem about Lucero's death, ending with this line: "We must all own our part in this crime ... We can legislate and educate the hate away." Suffolk resident Andrea Callan, also with the NYCLU, blasted the lawmakers for setting a bad example. "The policies coming out of this legislative body, and no doubt from the playbook of Steve Levy, have been divisive and unfair, and send a message of intolerance into our community."

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