Staten Island Grapples With Attacks Against Mexicans

David Torres (center) talks with police on Staten Island as they hand out info on hate crimes. i i

Store owner David Torres (center) talks with police officers Alejandra Vargas (left) and Manny Cantor-Alonso while they patrol and hand out information on hate crimes in the Port Richmond section of Staten Island, N.Y. Police have beefed up their presence in the neighborhood, with a mobile command center, a watchtower and officers on horseback. Seth Wenig/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Seth Wenig/AP
David Torres (center) talks with police on Staten Island as they hand out info on hate crimes.

Store owner David Torres (center) talks with police officers Alejandra Vargas (left) and Manny Cantor-Alonso while they patrol and hand out information on hate crimes in the Port Richmond section of Staten Island, N.Y. Police have beefed up their presence in the neighborhood, with a mobile command center, a watchtower and officers on horseback.

Seth Wenig/AP

The national debate over immigration is hitting especially close to home for one small neighborhood on Staten Island, New York City's least-populated borough.

Police are investigating a string of at least 10 alleged hate crimes in the borough's Port Richmond area since April — all violent, and all perpetrated against Mexicans.

Police have beefed up their presence in the neighborhood, with a mobile command center, a watchtower and officers on horseback. But down the street from all that, in a parking lot where day laborers wait to get picked up for work, Ismael Fabian says crimes like this are nothing new — only the 24-hour police posts are.

Power, Control And Territory

Fabian was born in Mexico but has lived in Port Richmond for eight years. Speaking through an interpreter, he says there have been two instances during that time when he has walked out of a store and people have jumped him from behind. One time, they beat him unconscious.

Gonzalo Mercado, executive director of El Centro del Inmigrante, an immigrant resource center in Port Richmond, says he hears stories like Fabian's all the time. "We were getting a lot of complaints from the community, 'This has happened to me, this happened to me,' " he says. "And every time we would ask them — especially from the Latino communities — if they had reported it, they would say, 'No.' "

Police officers in New York City are not permitted to inquire about immigration status when someone reports a crime. But Mercado says many immigrants don't understand that. So over the past year, El Centro has increased its efforts to help people report crimes. And, according to Mercado, that's what has changed in the past few months, and for the better: not necessarily the number of crimes, but the number of crimes being reported.

Still, community leaders are trying to figure what's at the root of these attacks, regardless of whether they get reported. "There definitely are issues of power and control and territory," says the Rev. Terry Troia, executive director of Project Hospitality, a Port Richmond-based nonprofit that works with the poor.

According to the district attorney's office in Richmond County, of the seven people arrested so far in this recent rash of attacks, five are black, one is Asian, and one is Dominican. None of them is older than 21.

"People are pitted against each other because there's simply not enough jobs to go around, not enough affordable housing to go around, not enough safety and not enough nutrition to go around," Troia says.

What's At The Heart Of The Problem?

The immigrant population has ballooned during the 25 years Troia has been in Port Richmond.

According to the Center for Latin American, Caribbean & Latino Studies at the City University of New York, in 2000 there were roughly 7,500 Mexicans on Staten Island. Over the course of the past decade, that number has nearly doubled. Many area residents say that has resulted in some friction between Mexicans and other minorities.

Still, Troia believes the problem runs even deeper. "I have kids that have come to us in our program and cried at sixth grade saying, 'I was called a wetback in school. Someone hit me over the head with their school bag,' " she says. "That language goes on at the junior high level. You can imagine by the time you get to high school and beyond how you're saturated."

This is all part of what hate crime specialists call negative "pulse," which includes anti-immigrant language people hear on TV and in passing conversation.

But some members of the community aren't sure that's at the heart of the current problem. The Rev. Victor Brown, who lives in Port Richmond and pastors an African-American church nearby, thinks the recent crime spree is less about bias than it is about people hurting for money.

"I am not convinced that all of these incidences are hate crimes," he says. "I believe that a lot of the incidences are crimes of opportunity." Brown says people are targeting Mexican immigrants because they're vulnerable. Not only are undocumented workers reluctant to call the police, but they're also likely to be carrying cash.

Several grand juries have agreed with Brown. They've indicted four people in the Port Richmond cases, but only one on charges of a hate crime, despite one victim's claims that his attackers used anti-Mexican slurs.

But there are still the incidents that fly under the radar; the ones that laborers like Robinson Tacher talk about as they wait for work in that parking lot. Just the other day, he was coming out of the gym as it was raining, and someone drove by in a car.

"He saw me, and then he came closer to the puddle and he splashed me," Tacher says, also through an interpreter.

After that, the man stopped the car and laughed at him. Tacher says he has no idea why someone would do that — other than the fact that he's Mexican.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.