Latinos Increasingly Targeted For Hate Crimes
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, another transition is afoot in Washington, a style makeover by soon-to-be First Lady Michelle Obama. We'll hear from a crew of taste makers about why Michelle Obama's style is already causing the country to take notice, and we'll talk about why that matters.
But first, to a far more serious subject, the stabbing death of 37-year-old Marcelo Lucero Saturday night in Long Island, New York. Now, a killing on a Saturday night in a big city or suburb isn't generally big news. But authorities say this was not some alcohol fueled fight or a robbery gone bad, but rather a hate crime because, officials say, Mr. Lucero, an immigrant from Ecuador, was specifically targeted by a group of teens who were cruising the streets looking for Latinos to victimize. Mr. Lucero was attacked as he waited for a train home.
What is more, activists say and FBI statistics confirm that the incident is part of a disturbing trend of attacks directed at Latinos because of their ethnic background. The FBI reported that hate crimes against Latinos rose almost 40 percent between 2003 and 2006, and Hispanic activists say that they increasingly are being subjected to threats and intimidation.
Joining us to talk about this is Tony Asion, he's the executive director for El Pueblo. It's an advocacy group for Latinos based in North Carolina. Also with us is Kevin Johnson, he's dean of the law school at the University of California at Davis. He's also a member of the board of directors for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund known as MALDEF. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Mr. TONY ASION (Executive Director, El Pueblo): It's a pleasure being with you today.
Dr. KEVIN JOHNSON (Dean, School of Law, University of California, Davis): Thanks, Michel, for having me.
MARTIN: Tony, I want to mention that you are a former police officer in addition to being a social activist, so I want to say this because you obviously know how to handle yourself. But I'd like to ask, when did you and other members of your organization start to see threats being directed at you?
Mr. ASION: Well, it depends. When something hits the media, then we start getting a lot of threats, but it has been an awful lot recently, I would say within the last a year or year and a half, and a lot of it, I believe, is fueled by politicians. In North Carolina, a lot of the politicians are running on a anti-Latino campaign, and as a result of that, there has been, you know, the politicians and their ads are saying things like, you know, we're going to get rid of them. They're causing all these problems, and lot of the fire is being fueled by that as a result, you know...
MARTIN: But what makes you say that specifically? I mean, now, I know your organization has been involved in some controversial issues, I mean, which you have every right to do. I mean, you were lobbying for in-state tuition rates for immigrants, legal and undocumented immigrants to in-state universities, things like that. So, what makes you think that it's being sort of fueled by public speech or by political? Do you know there's a correlation that when there's some sort of speech or something you noticed an increase? What makes you say that?
Mr. ASION: I'll give you a good example of that. The sheriff for Johnson County, one of the counties here in North Carolina, made announcements to a reporter where he said that Mexicans specifically were trashy people that reproduce like rabbits, that we're criminals, that we're killing people in the streets, driving drunk, and so on. Right after that, we started getting an awful lot of hate e-mails, hate letters, and threats. So there's definitely a direct correlation between what some politicians are saying what's actually happening out in public.
MARTIN: And when you say threats, what do you mean?
Ms. ASION: Oh, we've gotten death threats. We're going to put a bomb in your place. We're going to kill you. We're going to kill your family, these kinds of death threats.
MARTIN: Dean Johnson, there's no compilation of statistics about threats against advocates like the one Mr. Asion is telling us about, but there are statistics on hate crimes. What is your take on why this increase in hate crimes directed at Latinos is happening? And if, by extension, if perhaps you haven't thought about why the threat's against activists, if you think it's an extension of that.
Dr. JOHNSON: Well, the FBI hate crimes statistics show that, as you mentioned, that the hate crimes directed at Latinos increased dramatically over just the last few years, and we see it last year. In 2007, about 61 percent of all hate crimes were directed at Latinos. Over the same time period, you see very much a heated public debate over immigration in the United States and at times, certainly a hateful debate about immigration and immigrants in the United States.
One of the troubling things to me about what happened in Suffolk County and the poor Marcelo Lucero case is, it wasn't simply let's get immigrants. I mean, the prosecutor said that what was said by these teenagers was, let's find us some Mexicans. It wasn't immigrants. It wasn't illegal aliens. It wasn't Mexicans, and they ended up tracking down in Ecuadorian, sadly enough. But one of the problems with this anti-immigrant debate and the decrying of immigrants is, it does not always happen just to immigrants. It affects all Latinos. It affects all immigrant peoples...
MARTIN: But, how do you know it's driven by public speech, by dialogue by public officials?
Dr. JOHNSON: Well, you can see the correlation, and that's certainly not a proof of causation, but look at what's happened in some of the cities where we see some of these horrible events. We see in Suffolk County a situation were the chief executive in the county has been railing against immigrants and advocating various measures directed at the immigrants over the last year.
In Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, where a young Mexican immigrant was killed earlier this year, you're in a region of the country where one of the, you know, hot beds of an anti-immigrant legislation was passed by the Hazleton city council. You have a congressional candidate, Lou Barletta, the mayor of Hazleton, running for Congress on an anti-immigrant platform. It's hard for me to imagine that it is simply coincidence in over the last three years, when these kinds of debates have taking place, that hate crimes against Latinos have been on the rise.
MARTIN: If you just - forgive me. I need to jump in just for a minute to say, if you're just tuning in, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. And we're talking about hate crimes and threats against Latinos and advocates for Latinos. We're speaking with law Professor Kevin Johnson and activist Tony Asion.
Tony, how have you addressed this as an activist? This is your job to speak out on issues when you feel there's a need, so what do you do to protect yourself, and have you taken any steps, you and other members of your organizations, to address this?
Tony? Seem to be having trouble connecting with Tony. So, dean, let me ask you this question, Dean Johnson. What avenues do civil rights activists and others who have been threatened in this way have? Is there anything that you think can be done? Obviously, people have a right to have different points of view on legislation or any public policy issue, but when individuals are then being targeted for a point a view, what do they do? What avenues are available? Are there any things that have been proven to work in the past in addressing this?
Dr. JOHNSON: I mean, a number of organizations, and this has been the case for quite a long time, is adequate security measures have to be put in place to make sure that members of the organizations are protected from violence. I know staff attorneys for civil rights organizations long have had to take steps to protect their safety. And in these times, when you see anti-immigrant sentiment on the up-swing, it's very important for organizations to make sure that adequate safety measures are taken.
It's also important to work with police and law enforcement authorities when threats are made and report these threats, so that law enforcement can pursue them if necessary and if appropriate, but I do think that both of those are important.
MARTIN: Tony, I was asking you how you have addressed the threats against you and other members of your organization? What steps have you taken, and have you found there to be anything from a community standpoint that has worked to lower the temperature, as it were?
Mr. ASION: Well, obviously, we report these incidents, but we don't have a whole lot of faith that anything is going to come of it because really, so far, nothing has come of it, you know, on a local level. But, you know, part of what we want to do is educate the non-Latino community about the contributions that Latinos are making in North Carolina.
Of course, there's one-sided stories. You know, there's a lot of hate speeches and things going on. What we want to go out there and say, you know, these are some of the positive things that we're doing. And as a result, we're developing a media campaign to be able to do just that, to be able to say to the folks, this is why we're here. This is what we're contributing. This is what we're really all about.
MARTIN: Have you noticed that the immigration debate has been off the front pages for a while for all kinds of reasons, partly the economic downturn. Have you noticed any ebb in the hostility directed at you and other members of the organization since the issue isn't front and center?
Mr. ASION: No. In the last couple of weeks, the economy, of course, is what's taken front page in the papers here, and kind of everything else has taken the back seat. And when that happens, the same thing happens with us and with the threats that we get. It's when we get into the media that we start getting a lot of threats or when other people start getting in the media and talking about Latinos that we start getting these kind of things happening to us.
MARTIN: Dean Johnson, historically, you've been thinking about these issues for quite sometime and the civil rights matters involving other groups as well. So, how long does this go on? Does this - is this just something that Tony and other activists like him have to live with until the issue - we reach some sort of social consensus on this? Or is there anything more that can be done?
Dr. JOHNSON: I think that much can be done. But historically, throughout United States history, you see ebbs and flows and the scapegoating of immigrants, the scapegoating of minorities, blaming minorities and immigrants for the social problems of the day. And we appear to be in one of those times where, in various cities across the country, people are blaming, I think inappropriately so, Latinos and immigrants for the social problems of the day.
I think it's very important, as Tony mentioned, that efforts at education are made to show that it's not Mexican immigrants who are hurting our society, but in many ways, benefitting our society, in the job market, in our communities, in our schools, and the like. At the same time, I think that it's very important for leaders - political leaders to speak out on these issues, denounce these issues, like the governor of New York did yesterday, to condemn them.
In the most general level, I think one of the things that will help is, at some point in the near future, hopefully Congress will pass comprehensive immigration reform. One of the things that we've seen over the last few years is that, as Congress has failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform, local and state governments have tried to fill in the vacuum, and that's when we've seen some of the anti-immigrant agitation at some of the local and state levels. And hopefully, Congress can help stem that by, in the near future, enacting some kind of meaningful immigration reform. ..TEXT: MARTIN: Kevin Johnson is the dean of the school of law at the University of California at Davis. He also edits the Immigration Prof blog, and he was kind enough to join us from Papset(ph) studios in Sacramento, California.
We were also joined by Tony Asion. He's the executive director for El Pueblo. It's a non-profit state-wide advocacy and public policy organization dedicated to supporting the Latino community. He joined us from WNCU in Durham, North Carolina. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Mr. ASION: My pleasure.
Dr. JOHNSON: Thank you, Michel.