There is perhaps no other locale in the nation where anti-immigrant hatred has sunk roots as deep as those in Suffolk County, New York, where the powerful County Executive has built a career on it and where the judiciary is challenged to empanel a jury for the murder trial of a man accused of immigrant-killing for sport.
Almost a decade ago Newsday reporter Bart Jones aptly labeled Suffolk County “ground zero” of the anti-immigrant movement. As day laborers were brought in to provide low-wage labor for many of the upscale residents of the Long Island enclave, opposition to their presence began to build. The bellicose and belligerent “Sachem Quality of Life” crowd that sought to drum immigrants out of the County was subsumed by the Federation for American Immigration (FAIR)’s successful efforts to “mainstream” anti-immigrant bigotry, in spite of courageous efforts by community, religious, civic, labor, civil, and immigrant rights organizations. A decade later, the enduring power of FAIR-inspired anti-immigrant hatred is still manifest.
The New York Times reported last week that the task of empanelling an impartial Suffolk County jury for the first trial in the murder of Marcelo Lucero had become “a struggle to find tolerance.” Mr. Lucero was stabbed to death in the fall of 2008 when a group of seven teenagers out for an evening of “beaner hopping”—the “sport” of assaulting Latinos—killed him. Of 130 potential jurors interviewed over three days, only 5 were selected; the pall of anti-immigrant feeling ran deep and explicit, though subdued, among the pool of potential jurors. FAIR must have exulted—its work had, indeed, sunk deep roots.
The fact that teenagers even engaged in such “sport” is testament to the enduring power of anti-immigrant fervor in Suffolk County. Those who attacked Marcelo Lucero grew up in their formative years in an atmosphere rife with bigotry and hate that seeped into the lives of children and youth, as well as adults who, in 2010, could not serve as impartial jurors in the trial of those raised in their midst.
As the trial itself unfolds, reporter Bart Jones will likely not be writing about it for Newsday. After years of covering the anti-immigrant movement and its impact in Suffolk County, Jones has been reassigned by the newspaper, possibly under pressure from the powerful, anti-immigrant County Executive Steve Levy. Joe Strupp of Media Matters suggested last week that Levy may, indeed, have had his way at last, after complaining publicly for years about Jones’ thorough coverage of anti-immigrant activity and Levy’s own role in it. Jones helped break the 206 story that Levy was in the thick of the FAIR-inspired front group, “Mayors and Executives for Immigration Reform,” and he never let up reporting on Levy’s nefarious anti-immigrant politics. As much as the teenagers involved in the Lucero murder, Levy is testament to the enduring power of hate in Suffolk County; indeed, he is the embodiment of the political power birthed by such hatred.
In 2001 I saw the impact of this hatred when I first journeyed to Suffolk County to work with local organizations and religious leaders to counter it. Even in those early days of “ground zero,” hatred had taken deep root. As FAIR advanced its agenda in the County it became clear that it was playing a dual, pivotal role: mainstreaming its anti-immigrant mantra and, simultaneously, keeping the embers of hate glowing by ignoring the flames they would yield. In the early days neo-Nazis attracted to the County assaulted and intended to kill several immigrants. Immigrants were burned out of their residences. Hatred followed bigotry. Violence followed hatred. Murder followed violence. An immigrant died at the hands of youth raised in such an environment. An elected County Executive, a Democrat, fanned the embers, and when flames erupted he acted as if there were no heat.
Such is the enduring power of hate in Suffolk County, Long Island, New York. Unchecked, this is where anti-immigrant fervor goes, burning through neighborhoods, counties, and—as in Europe—countries as well; consuming the lives and spirits of youth and of those struggling for livelihoods and families; and making pawns of alleged leaders who smell only political opportunity in the deadly smoke of its flames.