Staten Island Grapples With Attacks Against Mexicans New York City 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. Residents are trying to figure out the root of the attacks.
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Staten Island Grapples With Attacks Against Mexicans

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Staten Island Grapples With Attacks Against Mexicans

Staten Island Grapples With Attacks Against Mexicans

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In one small neighborhood on Staten Island, the NYPD is investigating a string of at least 10 alleged hate crimes. They happened over the past four months. All were violent, all of them perpetrated against Mexicans.

The neighborhood is called Port Richmond. And as NPR's Brian Reed reports, locals are trying to figure out just what's behind the crimes.

BRIAN REED: Police have been a 24-hour presence on Port Richmond's main drag lately. They've got a mobile command center, a watchtower, officers on horseback. And down the street from all that, there's a parking lot where day laborers like Ismael Fabian wait to get picked up for work.

Mr. ISMAEL FABIAN: (Foreign language spoken)

REED: Fabian was born in Mexico, but he's been in Port Richmond for eight years. These crimes are not new, he says, only the police are. He says twice he's walked out of a store, and people have jumped him from behind. One time, they beat him unconscious.

So it's really common, and it has been since you've been here eight years ago?

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. FABIAN: Si.

REED: Still, Fabian didn't call the police about either of those crimes.

Mr. GONZALO MERCADO (Executive Director, El Centro Del Inmigrante): We were getting a lot of complaints from the community. This has happened to me, this happened to me. And every time we would ask them, especially from the Latino communities, you know, if they have reported it, they would say no.

REED: Gonzalo Mercado directs El Centro del Inmigrante, a resource center for immigrants and laborers in Port Richmond.

Police officers in New York are not permitted to ask someone about their immigration status when they report an incident. But Mercado says lots of immigrants don't understand that. So over the past year, Mercado's organization has amped up its efforts to help people report crimes. And he says that's what's changed in the last few months, and for the better: not the number of crimes, necessarily, but the number of crimes being reported.

According to the district attorney's office, of the seven people arrested so far in this recent rash of incidents, five are black, one is Asian, and one is Dominican. None of them is over the age of 21.

Community leaders like Reverend Terry Troia are trying to figure out why.

Reverend TERRY TROIA (Executive Director, Project Hospitality): There definitely are issues of power and control and territory. And people are pitted against each other because there's simply not enough jobs to go around, not enough affordable housing to go around.

REED: Troia runs Project Hospitality, a nonprofit in Port Richmond that works with the poor. She's been there more than 25 years, and she's watched the immigrant population balloon.

According to the City University's Latino Data Project, in 2000 there were roughly 7,500 Mexicans on Staten Island. Over the course of the last decade, that number has almost doubled. And many area residents say that's caused some friction between Mexicans and other minorities.

Still, Troia believes the problem is even deeper. It's what hate crime specialists call negative pulse, which also includes anti-immigrant language people hear on TV and in passing conversation.

Rev. TROIA: I have kids that have come to us in our program and cried at sixth grade saying I was called a wetback in school. You know, someone hit me over the head with their school bag. 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.

REED: But Reverend Victor Brown, who lives in Port Richmond and pastors an African-American church nearby, thinks the recent crime spree is less about bias and more about people hurting for money.

Reverend VICTOR BROWN: I am not convinced that all of the incidences are hate crimes. A lot of the incidences are crimes of opportunity.

REED: Brown says people are targeting Mexican immigrants because they're vulnerable. Not only are undocumented workers reluctant to call the police, they're also likely to be carrying cash.

And 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 the fact that one victim claims that his attackers used anti-Mexican slurs.

And still there are 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.

Mr. ROBINSON TACHER: (Foreign language spoken)

REED: He says, just the other day, he was walking home the gym...

Unidentified Man #2: And it was raining, and he was coming out, and one of the cars just moved to the side to hit a puddle to splash him.

REED: After that, Tacher says, the driver stopped his car just to laugh at him. He says he has no idea why someone would do that other than the fact that he's Mexican.

Brian Reed, NPR News.

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