Immigrants Scapegoated as Economy Teeters

NEW YORK, Jan 26 -- Things in Suffolk County on Long Island have gotten so bad lately that the U.S. Justice Department is launching an investigation into attacks on Latino residents, and may also examine whether local police agencies improperly handled several widely publicized incidents.


Some groups that monitor hate crimes in the United States see the problem as part of a broader pattern, driven by anti-immigrant rhetoric and extremist groups looking for a scapegoat as the economy continues to shed thousands of jobs.

According to Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) statistics, from 2003 to 2007, anti-Latino hate crimes increased by 40 percent. Altogether, slightly more than half of the 7,722 single-bias incidents reported to the FBI in 2006 were motivated by a racial bias, according to a survey by Human Rights First.

Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks extremist groups in the United States, told IPS that "these murders are the combination of this dramatic rise in anti-Latino hate crimes and [increased] violence".

In separate incidents last November and December, two Ecuadorian men died in violent group assaults. Marcelo Lucero, 38, was stabbed to death on Nov. 8, and the following month, in Brooklyn, another Ecuadorian immigrant, 31-year-old Jose Sucuzhanay, was beaten to death by three men, who yelled anti-gay and anti-Hispanic slurs as he and his brother walked home. That crime remains unsolved.

In the Lucero case, one teenager has been charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter as a hate crime, and six others face multiple counts of gang assault and hate crimes.

While local police say they were unaware of tensions in the community, an investigation by the New York Times found a clear pattern of white youths preying on Latino residents for several years at least. One of those arrested told the authorities, "I don't go out doing this [assaulting apparent immigrants] very often -- maybe once a week."

Potok believes the economic crisis in the country is one several factors underlying such crimes, as well as the growth of more organised hate groups. The SPLC counted 602 hate groups in 2000 and 888 in 2007 -- a 49 percent rise.

"In the context of a highly polarised immigration debate, discrimination will increase and hate crimes continue," Donald Kerwin, vice director of programs at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, told IPS. "Prominent media figures advocating discrimination against migrants will take the occasion to blame immigrants for the economic downturn, for the housing crisis."

Advocates note that many of these crimes go unreported because of a fear of the police and immigration authorities.

"Local police making Latinos and immigrants feel unwelcome in reporting crimes, local politicians speaking out against Latinos and immigrants contribute to the increased level of violence against Latinos and immigrants," Foster Maer, a senior attorney at Latino Justice, whose civil rights complaint against the Suffolk County police last November helped trigger the federal probe, told IPS.

In the Lucero case, the police initially characterised the attack as "second-degree robbery". According to the complaint filed by Latino Justice, the Suffolk County police routinely ignored harassment of Latinos in the community.

"In a context of economic crisis, these crimes are a wake-up call for authorities to do more to provide additional resources for the local officers to reach out to communities vulnerable to hate crimes," Paul LeGendre, director of the Fighting Discrimination Program at Human Rights First, told IPS.

An initiative introduced under the George W. Bush administration allows local police to be deputies for the enforcement of federal immigration law, "a terrible program" that undercuts police work, said Potok.

Even some local police forces have said that the program makes it even harder to solve bias crimes in neighborhoods with large immigrant populations.

LeGendre said that a hate crimes prevention act -- which never became law -- is expected to pass under the new Barack Obama administration. It would provide more resources to local authorities and extend the range of prosecutable bias motivations to include disabilities, gender and sexual orientation.

Many groups are hopeful that reforms will be forthcoming with the appointment of Janet Napolitano as the new secretary of homeland security. Maer believes that the new administration's policies will be more compassionate and help reduce violence against Latinos and immigrants.

However, immigration reform has proved to be a highly politicised and divisive issue, and others are sceptical that a consensus on sweeping changes will happen anytime soon.

"Looking at the history of immigration, often Congress and the president put forward more restrictive policies in times of economic downturn," Alison Parker, deputy director of the Human Rights Watch U.S. Program, told IPS.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), 200 million people are living and working outside their home countries. Migrant remittances are widely recognised path to economic development, with some 251 billion dollars sent back to countries of origin in 2007, according to the World Bank.

According to the Human Rights Coalition, between October 2007 and September 2008, nearly 350,000 immigrants were deported. Immigrants are also more likely to suffer human rights violations -- the Human Rights Coalition reported 183 migrant deaths along the U.S./Mexico border in the state of Arizona alone last year.

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