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The Southern Poverty Law Center released a chilling report yesterday, called “Climate of Fear,” which details growing violent hatred of Latino immigrants. It focuses on a single county in New York state, but notes that the incidents there – one horrible incident after another – are illustrative of a much larger nationwide problem.

The center sent a Spanish-speaking researcher to Suffolk County in the aftermath of the murder last fall of Marcelo Lucero, an immigrant from Ecuador, whose killing was carried out, according to police, by members of a teenage gang calling itself the Caucasian Crew.

Writes Mark Potok, director of the law center’s Intelligence Project, which produced the report:

The Lucero murder, while the worst of the violence so far, was hardly an isolated incident. Latino immigrants in Suffolk County are regularly harassed, taunted, and pelted with objects hurled from cars. They are frequently run off the road while riding bicycles, and many report being beaten with baseball bats and other objects. Others have been shot with BB guns or pepper-sprayed. Most will not walk alone after dark; parents often refuse to let their children play outside. A few have been the targets of arson attacks and worse. Adding to immigrants’ fears is the furious rhetoric of groups like the now-defunct Sachem Quality of Life, whose long-time spokesman regularly referred to immigrants as “terrorists.” The leader of another nativist group, this one based in California, was one of many adding their vitriol, describing a “frightening” visit to an area where Latinos are concentrated in Suffolk: “They urinate, they defecate, [they] make sexual overtures to women.”

What’s more, the report notes:

Fueling the fire are many of the very people who are charged with protecting the residents of Suffolk County — local politicians and law enforcement officials. At one point, one county legislator said that if he saw an influx of Latino day laborers in his town, “we’ll be out with baseball bats.” Another said that if Latino workers were to gather in a local neighborhood, “I would load my gun and start shooting, period.” A third publicly warned undocumented residents that they “better beware.” County Executive Steve Levy, the highest-ranking official in Suffolk, is no friend of immigrants, either. When criticized by a group of immigrant advocates, for example, Levy called the organization a den of “Communists” and “anarchists.” At the same time, immigrants told the SPLC that the police were, at best, indifferent to their reports of harassment, and, at worst, contributors to it. Many said police did not take their reports of attacks seriously, often blaming the victim instead. They said they are regularly subjected to racial profiling while driving and often to illegal searches and seizures. They said there’s little point in going to the police, who are often not interested in their plight and instead demand to know their immigration status.

Latinos’ uneasy relationship with police has long been an issue locally, going all the way back to the 1991 “disturbances” in Mount Pleasant after a Salvadoran man was fatally shot, during a Cinqo de Mayo celebration, by a rookie Metropolitan Police Department officer.

More recently, in 2003, a lieutenant in the 4th District was found to have verbally abused a Latino family – the father for not understanding English and his children for taking it upon themselves to translate for him, as the Washington Post reported in a larger story that year on Latino-police relations.

A civil lawsuit was filed last month in connection with the fatal shooting of an immigrant by a Prince George’s County police officer a year ago. It alleges that Cpl. Steven Jackson first beat and then shot Manuel de Jesus Espina though the man was unarmed and not resisting, and that the incident was part of a pattern of violations by Jackson of the civil rights of Hispanics and others.

If only there were less reason to mark the anniversary of the May 5, 1991, riots in Mount Pleasant each year.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery