ThinkProgress: Long Islanders fear a return to violence against immigrants

Actors depicting the attacks on Latino immigrants in the play "What Killed Marcelo Lucero?"

ThinkProgress has an article out today looking at Long Island eight years after the murder of Marcelo Lucero. The Ecuadoran immigrant was lynched less than a week after the election of President Obama in 2008. According to ThinkProgress:

The hate crime marked the lowest point in decades of anti-immigrant violence and harassment that festered on Long Island, and it spurred the community into action. Since Lucero’s death, local leaders have worked tirelessly to educate the community, reform and diversify the local police force, and make Suffolk County more welcoming to immigrants and refugees.

According to ThinkProgress, “All that changed this year…Immigrants and local leaders on Long Island told ThinkProgress that they see a rise in anti-immigrant anger spurred by…proposals for mass deportations and a border wall, and speeches demonizing immigrants. They worry violence could follow.” Long Island Wins Executive Director Maryann Slutsky told ThinkProgress that “We’re afraid of going back to those dark days…We’ve made so much so much progress and now we’re going to go right back to where we started from.”

Thousands of Long Islanders joined vigils in Patchogue following the 2008 killing of Marcelo Lucero.

ThinkProgress accurately ascribes the upsurge in violence against immigrants in 2008 to politicians hoping to exploit the fear of some native-born Long Islanders by blaming immigrants for nearly everything wrong in the region. According to ThinkProgress:

In 2006, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy spoke of women crossing the border to give birth to “anchor babies… free of charge.” He unsuccessfully pushed for a law that would have empowered county police officers to detain Latinos solely on suspicion of being undocumented and turn them over to federal authorities for deportation. In 2008, he dismissed Marcelo Lucero’s murder as a “one-day story.”

Joselo Lucero, Marcelo’s younger brother, told ThinkProgress he believes Levy is partly responsible for stirring up the hatred that led to his brother’s death, and he fears Donald Trump could have a similar impact with his own anti-immigrant message.

“Levy had so much influence in the local media, which gave him the space to talk about implementing all these rules against immigrants,” he said. “If a local politician in one small town can lead to the murder of my brother, imagine what someone at a high level could do.”

Even eight years later, after Levy left office in disgrace, he still clings to the claim that his racist attacks on Latinos had no impact on the surge of violence in the county.

Levy pushed back hard against this characterization. “How can anyone say that the teenage thugs, who never even knew my name or anything about county government, were somehow taking their cues from those in leadership positions?” he said. “These were simply thugs who committed outrageous crimes and were punished accordingly.”

Levy claimed that until Marcelo Lucero’s murder, “not a single elected official”— himself included— was aware of “heinous activity” being perpetrated against immigrants in the area. He took umbrage at being “excoriated” by “extremists” for pursuing strict immigration enforcement policies.

Vigils have been held yearly at the place where Lucero was attacked.
Vigils have been held yearly at the place where Lucero was attacked.

ThinkProgress asked Maryann Slutsky and Elise Damas of CARECEN to explain the opposition of some white Long Islanders to the Central American children who have sought refuge in Suffolk over the last two years:

“These little kids risked their lives to come here because life was so impossible and horrific and violent in their home countries,” said Slutsky. “They were just coming to be with their parents. But people here were demonizing them and saying the stupidest things, like that they would bring their property values down.”

Another factor fueling a fear of immigrants, said local immigration attorney Elise Damas, is Long Island’s extreme economic and racial segregation. “You have very few communities where there is intermixing,” she said. “You have where immigrants live, and you have where non-immigrants live, and never the twain shall meet. The extent of interaction with immigrants for most Long Islanders is the guy who mows their lawn.”

Damas, who works with the Central American human rights group CARECEN, is among the advocates who say those who do not personally know immigrants are more susceptible to negative rhetoric about them from local officials and from [national politicians].

“When [they say] these awful things, it makes an impression on people who don’t know any differently,” Slutsky said. “So I don’t fault people who don’t know. If I didn’t do this work all day, I wouldn’t know that immigrants pay taxes and sustain the community economically. But because many people don’t know, [these] words really matter.”

“There has been some deterioration this year,” said Pat Young, a professor at Long Island’s Hofstra University. “I see Latinos walking along and people scream at them, ‘Build the wall!’ It’s said to intimidate them.” Young said the slogan about a U.S.-Mexico border wall — a central theme of [The Presidential] campaign — has “become shorthand for ‘We don’t like Latinos.’”

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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