ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
New York's Long Island is very different from a decade ago. The Latino population there has grown by 40 percent since the year 2000. Tensions have grown as well. The Justice Department is investigating whether the police have a pattern of ignoring hate crimes against immigrants.
NPR's Ari Shapiro began this story on today's MORNING EDITION. And he picks it up now one year after a murder.
ARI SHAPIRO: This is the site in Patchogue on Long Island, where Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant, was murdered by a gang of seven teenagers. And a group of people from the community have gathered here tonight for a vigil to try to bring the community together.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)
SHAPIRO: There are about 200 immigrants, activists and clergy clustered around a small stage. Below a poster of Marcelo Lucero, a woman lights candles in the shape of a peace sign. Marcelo's mother, Rosario Lucero, came from Ecuador for the occasion. With an interpreter, she speaks to the crowd outside the house where her son was stabbed.
ROSARIO LUCERO: (Through translator) The pain that I feel, God will take care of this.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN HORN)
JOSELO LUCERO: This place where he was bleeding most.
SHAPIRO: This is Joselo Lucero. He met us a few hours before the vigil near the train station where his brother was killed. The defendants in the crime are a group of high school students who have said they were out to bash immigrants on a night of what they called beaner hopping. Joselo has lived in Patchogue for 14 years. He says immigrants have always been afraid that if they report violence they'll be deported.
LUCERO: When I found out my brother got killed for no reason, the first thing I thinking was like, I'm not going to let it happen anymore.
SHAPIRO: As we stand on the corner with microphones and headsets, a police car pulls up.
VICTOR CRUZ: Hi, there.
LUCERO: Hey, how you doing? (Foreign language spoken)
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SHAPIRO: Officer Victor Cruz rolls down his window and starts speaking with Joselo in Spanish.
LUCERO: (Foreign language spoken)
CRUZ: (Foreign language spoken)
SHAPIRO: Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer hopes to see more interactions like this one.
RICHARD DORMER: If they're undocumented, they don't want to deal with the police. So, we understand that. That's why building the bridges to this community is so important.
SHAPIRO: After the Lucero killing a year ago, Dormer promoted an officer named Lola Quesada to be his point person on immigrant issues.
LOLA QUESADA: Nothing is easy when it comes to trust.
SHAPIRO: Quesada says even when she convinces immigrants to trust her, they may be reluctant to trust the police as an institution.
QUESADA: Sometimes they call me on their cell phone to my cell phone. So, they usually ask me, oh, by the way, I'm having trouble with this or whatever. And then I tell them, okay, I understand your concern but I want you to call 911.
SHAPIRO: While the police say they are working hard to build bridges to the immigrant community, some immigrant leaders don't see it.
MATILDE PARADA: There is a lot of talking but we would like to see the result.
SHAPIRO: Matilde Parada created the group Human Solidarity 10 years ago, to advocate for immigrants.
PARADA: Politicians, they don't teach to tolerate the immigrants. They bring a hate message to the community. And that's why Marcelo Lucero was killed.
SHAPIRO: Parada sees a direct link between anti-immigration rhetoric and anti- immigrant violence. And she blames this man, County Executive Steve Levy, who has taken a strong stance against illegal immigration.
STEVE LEVY: It's a real disservice to try to say these things only happen in those areas where there might be a debate over the issue of illegal immigration. It's dangerous because it gives the impression that if you don't have a debate about illegal immigration, Latinos are safe. That's not necessarily true.
SHAPIRO: But state assembly man Phil Ramos says elected officials must measure their words.
PHIL RAMOS: If you say the word illegal enough times as buzzwords in your speeches, these people cease to be human beings. And that's what leads to a group of six or seven young men to hunt an Ecuadorian man on the street like an animal and just stab him and kill him.
SHAPIRO: Ramos was a police officer here for 20 years before he retired and ran for public office. In 2000, he investigated a major hate crime against immigrants.
RAMOS: And it was like something out of a horror movie. Two day laborers were picked up off the street, promised a job, they were brought to an abandoned factory, and they were ordered to dig two holes. And those two holes were to be their graves.
SHAPIRO: The men were clubbed nearly to death. They eventually escaped. The official number of hate crimes in Suffolk County has actually dropped in the last decade. But Ramos says that's because the police feel pressure not to report incidents.
RAMOS: I know the procedures from within and the problem is because you have elected officials pressuring the police department to keep the numbers low...
SHAPIRO: To keep the crime numbers low.
RAMOS: Right. If hate crime numbers go up, those elected officials are going to get blamed for inflaming racist sentiment.
LEVY: Well, that's a pretty scurrilous statement.
SHAPIRO: County Executive Steve Levy.
LEVY: If he has proof of that, go send it to the district attorney because that's an outright lie.
SHAPIRO: This is what the Justice Department is investigating. In September, lawyers from the civil rights division sent Levy a letter announcing what's known as a pattern or practice investigation. It's an inquiry into whether police here routinely mishandle hate crimes. These sorts of investigations are big, and under the Bush administration they were rare. Generally, these cases are solved through collaboration rather than court battles. And the police commissioner and executive Levy both say they are eager to work with the department. For immigrants, the allegation that police ignore hate crimes is just one more reason to stay in the shadows. Mariano Barahona is a carpenter.
MARIANO BARAHONA: (Through translator) I live in fear. Everyone lives in fear.
SHAPIRO: Despite that fear he moved from Miami to Long Island. The reason?
BARAHONA: (Through translator) In Miami, I was making $70, $80 a day. Here, I make up to $150 to $160 a day.
SHAPIRO: This is the deal immigrants make, says Sister Margaret Smyth. You get work but you may also face discrimination or abuse.
MARGARET SMYTH: They accept it as part of the package that comes with having to live here.
SHAPIRO: Smyth is a Catholic nun who works in the immigrant community. We met her handing out lunches to people in need. She says immigrants experience abuse in many forms. Slumlords may cram people into houses and employers may refuse to pay workers.
SMYTH: In the very beginning, practically nobody would ever tell me this, but now we've built up their strength because they see we can go after the employers. We go after them all the time. And the bosses call us up, some of them, and scream at us.
SHAPIRO: Life for immigrants on Long Island may in fact be changing. That's the hope Joselo Lucero expressed on the cold night when people gathered to mark his brother's death.
LUCERO: We always have a second chance here, you know, we always try to prove we can change, you know.
SHAPIRO: That's Joselo Lucero, brother of Marcelo Lucero who was murdered one year ago.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Patchogue, Long Island.