Immigration

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."

While the speakers, some wearing pins reading "I am Marcelo Lucero," launched these critiques, many legislators looked the other way. Brian Beedenbender and Jack Eddington, both enthusiastic backers of Levy's campaign against illegal immigration, stared at the screens of their laptops.

In between the advocates' speeches, other speakers touched on more routine Suffolk issues like the budget woes of the county's planetarium and science museum.

Some in Suffolk may yearn for normality, but their county has forever become emblematic of a problem with national reach: the tension between the suburban myth of white-picket fences and orderly lawns and the realities of immigration. As job-seeking immigrants increasingly move from urban areas to outlying communities, suburbs must choose whether they will embrace diversity or scapegoat foreigners.

It's no secret many Suffolk residents moved from more urbanized areas to put some distance between themselves and what they perceive as the chaotic diversity of New York City and its immediate surroundings, said Patrick Young, program director of the Central American Refugee Center (Carecen), who also spoke at the session. Suburbia's irrational distrust and fear of minorities can manifest as anti-immigrant sentiment.

"It has become an acceptable part of the culture of this area, and this is a culture that's pandered to by these politicians and stirred up by them," he said.

Not all Suffolk legislators agree on immigration. Some lawmakers (including two Latinos and a Republican) have made efforts to reach out to the Latino community and taken a stand against Levy's aggressive immigration positions.

For his part, in a televised speech the same night of the Nov. 18 legislative session, Levy apologized for his initial reaction minimizing the hate crime's importance (he had said that if it had happened elsewhere, Lucero's murder would have been "a one-day story," a comment that enraged many Latinos and activists). Levy, son of a Jewish father, also compared Lucero's killing to Kristallnacht in 1938, when Nazis in Germany destroyed Jewish businesses and synagogues. Lucero's murder occurred on the eve of Kristallnacht's 70-year anniversary.

But Levy denied there was a link between Lucero's death and his attitude toward illegal immigration. "Advocates for those here illegally should not disparage those opposed to the illegal immigration policy as being bigoted or intolerant," he said.

The next day, though, Levy seemed to forget his serious tone and again was flippant regarding Lucero's murder. According to Newsday, he was speaking to a gathering of business people and jokingly compared his difficulties handling the Lucero case to a colonoscopy.

In the past, Levy has cited the dream of a suburban lifestyle to justify his beliefs on immigration. “People who play by the rules work hard to achieve the suburban dream of the white picket fence,” he said in 2007 to The New York Times. “Whether you are black or white or Hispanic, if you live in the suburbs, you do not want to live across the street from a house where 60 men live. You do not want trucks riding up and down the block at 5 a.m., picking up workers.” With such statements Levy is advancing a polarizing vision, said immigrant advocates.

It's the same rhetoric the teenagers who killed Lucero have been hearing since they were old enough to understand it, said Carcen’s Young, who added, "this constant branding of people as illegal is the most dehumanizing thing."

At the street corner in the tidy, seaside village of Patchogue where Lucero died, an improvised shrine has been set up, with flowers, candles, and photos. A line of orange spray-paint left by police still marks the path the mortally wounded Lucero followed before falling. A sign written in black marker reads: "God Loves All People, and All People Should Love One Another."

 

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