LI immigrants say tensions fade after bias attack

Police say Lucero died in a hate crime attack.

March 27, 2010 12:32:07 PM PDT
Before an Ecuadorean immigrant was fatally stabbed by a swastika-tattooed teenager, the illegal Latin American immigrants in this suburban middle-class village feared telling police about the young men on bikes who hurled stones and spit slurs at them. There was always the chance, they believed, that a report to the police would get them deported or would simply be ignored. But much has changed since the November 2008 night when Marcelo Lucero, 37, was attacked by teens - six white, one of Puerto Rican descent - who prosecutors say hunted Patchogue that day for Hispanics to attack.

With a man on trial for murder in Lucero's killing, immigrants say the Suffolk Police Department has made a visible and seemingly committed effort to reach them.

"I give the credit to Marcelo," said Jose Bonilla, the owner of Bravo supermarket, which caters to Hispanics with Latin American products and a bakery stocked with Ecuadorean sweet breads. "Often times, before that happened, the community was afraid because they were illegal."

Now, he said, there is far less fear and more trust in authorities. One of his workers agreed.

"Now people feel like they can ask police for things and call the police," said Francisco Luis, 27, of Bayport, who has worked at the supermarket for more than two years. "But some people are still afraid."

Yet even those with fears say the tension has ebbed. The young men on bikes who once tormented Hispanics around town have, for the most part, faded from the streets.

"It seems like it's changed a lot," said Soyla Castillo, 50, who was folding clothes for a friend at a cavernous coin-operated laundry on East Main Street. Nevertheless, she rarely walks the street at night. "We're always cautious."

Patchogue is a village of sharp contrast, where it is easy to spot newcomers - most of them from Mexico, Central America and Ecuador - as they travel by bike or on foot, while later-model cars driven by mostly middle-class residents pass them by on the streets. Most of the immigrants work in construction, at factories and in restaurants, and some have managed to start their own businesses, catering to their fellow countrymen.

The village in Suffolk County, which sprawls across the eastern half of Long Island, has attracted thousands of Latinos in recent years. The latest U.S. Census figures show the Hispanic population has nearly doubled in a decade to 13.7 percent in 2008.

That immigrant influx stoked tension in the communities, and some immigrant advocates said raids on immigrants' homes and comments about the newcomers by Suffolk County politicians and police only inflamed the hate.

Others said the official response to assaults and harassment was lukewarm. Some claimed that before the Lucero attack, police would randomly stop immigrants to ask for their identification, even if they were doing nothing illegal.

The Suffolk County Police Department has long said its officers don't ask about legal status.

A September 2009 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a national civil rights organization, included the Lucero killing in its decade-long timeline documenting anti-immigrant attacks throughout the country. The Lucero killing focused national attention on the local tensions, prompting the U.S. Justice Department to open an ongoing investigation of hate crimes in Suffolk County and the police response to them.

Since last week, Jeffrey Conroy, 19, has been on trial in Riverhead in Lucero's death. Charged with murder and manslaughter as a hate crime, prosecutors say he inflicted the fatal stab wound.

Conroy has pleaded not guilty.

Four of the other six teens charged with hate crimes in the case have pleaded guilty and face 10 or more years in prison. Two others have pleaded not guilty.

Nicholas Hausch, who has pleaded guilty, is expected to testify Monday against Conroy, one of his buddies at Patchogue-Medford High School. Prosecutors expect him to tell jurors how he pleaded with Conroy to throw away the knife used in the midnight attack on a Patchogue street corner.

Prosecutors say the seven teenagers, from nearby East Patchogue and Medford, set out "to find a Hispanic person to randomly and physically attack" - what some of them referred to sportingly as "beaner-jumping."

When they couldn't find anyone to attack in Medford, they moved on to Patchogue, prosecutors said.

The seven were arrested within minutes of the stabbing only blocks from where Lucero was found.

After the Lucero killing, Suffolk Police Officer Lola Quesada, born in Ecuador, was appointed to work as a liaison between police and the Hispanic community.

When she met with community members, she was struck by how little information about alleged attacks was getting to police. The immigrants feared calling 911, she said, because they thought they would be found to be in the country illegally. Sometimes they didn't think they had the right to call because they were not legal.

The language barrier and lack of Spanish-speaking police officers were problems, she said.

"We had a problem of communication of what 'papers' meant," she said. If police asked for identification for routine record-keeping or to locate where a crime had occurred, the request was sometimes misinterpreted as an attempt to determine an immigrant's legal status.

"We began understanding their fear of us," said Quesada, who is bilingual. Now, she said, police emphasize they are not asking for legal status. "They're afraid. They think we have some computer network that will figure out of they're illegal here.

We've become more sensitive to that."

The newfound sensitivity includes a bilingual Spanish-speaking patrol officer regularly stationed on East Main Street, in the area where much of the immigrant community is reflected in the storefronts, such as money-wiring businesses and a record shop. A Hispanic officer has been assigned to command the local precinct.

Other village institutions helping build trust since Lucero's death, she said, are the mayor's office and the library, which offers classes in English as a second language and other bilingual resources.

But Quesada said her job is ongoing. "Every day there is a new immigrant, and every day I have to let them know it's OK to talk to law enforcement," she said.

A white cross on a rosary hangs on a fence at the entrance to the alleyway where Lucero died.

Back at the bustling coin-operated laundry on East Main Street, many of the dozen or so immigrants folding clothes at the tables and tending to the washers and dryers said they felt there were fewer reports of harassment because of their ethnicity.

"That has been reduced," said Segundo Cuadros, 69, an Ecuadorean who works part-time at a hotel and at Taco Bell. "There aren't any opportunities to attack. The police are always watching."