MICHEL MARTIN, host: But first, we are returning to a subject that preoccupies us: immigration. Since this country's beginnings, immigrants have had a starring role in the life and growth of this country, but resentment of them has also been a major subplot.
A new documentary describes how that resentment played out in one community, but also how that community chose to respond. The film is called "Not In Our Town: Light in the Darkness."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOT IN OUR TOWN: LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS")
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My friend had called me and said, you need to turn on the news. Our friends have been in a tragedy. I couldn't believe that any of that would happen, especially in our area, or anybody that I knew would possibly do that.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I felt so angry that they would do something like that that I wanted to do it to them and I'm sure a lot of people in this community felt the same way. And it just woke us up.
MARTIN: "Not In Our Town: Light in the Darkness" describes what happened after a series of attacks on Latinos living in Patchogue, New York ended with the killing of a man named Marcelo Lucero, a 37-year-old immigrant from Ecuador that happened in 2008.
But what happened next might surprise you. The film debuts on PBS tonight. You'll want to check your local listings for exact times, but Patrice O'Neill, director and executive producer of "Not In Our Town" joins us now to tell us more about it. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
PATRICE O'NEILL: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: How did you hear about this incident and how did you decide or why did you decide to make it the centerpiece of a film?
O'NEILL: We monitor hate crimes, so we were looking for a story of community response to hate crime. We'd been hearing from communities around the country about the rising rhetoric and anti-immigrant tensions and the violence, in fact.
It was about a week after Marcelo Lucero was killed, we started to get those signals. Five hundred people showed up at the train station near where Marcelo Lucero was killed for a vigil. We heard his brother speak so eloquently as an advocate for immigrants. We began to see a town that was ready to take action in the face of hate.
MARTIN: The police and the authorities discovered that this is something that some of the kids in the community had been doing for fun. They were calling it beaner hopping. And could you tell us what that is and who is participating in this?
O'NEILL: As prosecutors investigated this crime, they learned that, for many, many months, young men in this community would roam the streets. They would go from Medford to Patchogue looking for - excuse me - Mexicans to beat up. They were literally hunting people who they identified as immigrants and it's clear that many of the students in the school knew about these crimes, did not speak up, that sometimes the immigrants would report it to the police, but it was not looked at as the serious, dangerous issue that it was.
So there were deep divisions in this town and many people see Suffolk County as a sort of a hot spot in the immigration debate. There had been shouting matches. A lot of the discussion about what many people saw as not just bills that would try to deal with the immigration issue, but some people felt it crossed over into sort of an anti-immigrant sentiment.
There had been warning signs for years and I think, when this murder occurred, it really woke many people up and said, we have to deal with what are we saying to our young people? What kind of message are they getting about what we value in our community and who we are?
MARTIN: And if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Patrice O'Neill, director and executive producer of the documentary, "Not In Our Town: Light in the Darkness." It documents what happened in Patchogue, New York after an Ecuadorian immigrant was killed by a group of young people. And it turns out that there had been a number of attacks on immigrants that hadn't come to light before this.
The film makes it clear that people who lived in this community for a long time really had to do some soul searching in the wake of this, but they did. They did do that soul searching, which is not a story that you always hear.
Could you tell us about some of the things that happened as a result of the community responding to this terrible event?
O'NEILL: Well, when you speak about soul searching, I think that the mayor, Paul Pontieri, is a person who, early on, told us that he was very distraught, that he didn't know that this had happened. It happened in his community. It happened on his watch and he had to be responsible for taking action in the aftermath of this crime.
MARTIN: Here's an example of what it is that you're talking about.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NOT IN OUR TOWN: LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS")
Mayor PAUL PONTIERI: It was as if somebody had struck me square between the eyes with a two-by-four because where the incident took place is a block and a half from Village Hall and it's two blocks from where I grew up and it's two blocks from where my dad had a store. I'm there all the time. You don't expect to find out that the community you love that something like this could happen.
MARTIN: This murder happened in 2008. What's happened since then?
O'NEILL: I do think that many in the immigrant community said that they feel safer, that they have a better relationship. There are some police officers on the ground who worked very hard to develop trust with the immigrant community. They have formed their own committees to advocate for themselves. There's a radio talk show host, a Spanish language talk show host, who's really been raising this issue in the immigrant community. There are faith leaders who have taken up this issue and who had taken up this issue, but in a much more urgent way. Students became advocates for the Lucero family. It took a long time to get to this place and it may take a long time to change.
MARTIN: For someone who has strong feelings about immigration who feels that, for example, illegal immigration has gone unchecked, is not in the best interests of the United States, wants to see a more aggressive effort aimed at curbing illegal immigration, how would you want someone who has that point of view to relate to this film? What would they find in it that you feel would be important?
O'NEILL: I hope they find our common humanity and that they see immigrants who are in this country in a new way. They may hold onto their views. I think you can have wide disagreement about immigration reform and what should be done, but there should be absolutely no disagreement about people being able to walk the streets of a community free from being attacked because of their identity.
And people should be able to report safely, report crimes to the police. I think that's a bedrock value of democracy.
MARTIN: Now, you've worked in this area for quite a long time. You've been doing work in this area for some time now. Was there something in the course of reporting this film that really surprised you?
O'NEILL: I think what surprised me the most was how this could so easily happen where young people get an idea and it becomes cool to do this. And how could those young people have missed this? And I think it's a deep sadness for all of us as we watch this film. And what can we do as a community at large, as a country, to sort of reach our young people or encourage them to talk to each other in a new way about this kind of deep prejudice?
MARTIN: What happened to the seven people who were arrested and charged with this crime?
O'NEILL: Six of the young men pled guilty and were sentenced to five to nine years in prison and Jeffrey Conroy, the young man who stabbed Marcelo Lucero, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
MARTIN: Patrice O'Neill is the director and executive producer of the new documentary, "Not In Our Town: Light in the Darkness." She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.
Patrice O'Neill, thanks so much for joining us.
O'NEILL: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: This film debuts tonight on PBS, although you'll want to check your local listings for exact times and we'll also have information on our website. Just go to NPR.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)