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FBI finds attacks against Latinos on rise


Newsday.com

FBI finds attacks against Latinos on rise

BY SUMATHI REDDY

November 23, 2008


In a Pennsylvania coal mining town last July, four high school football players were accused of shouting ethnic slurs at a Mexican immigrant before a brawl erupted and Luis Ramirez, 25, was killed.

Three of the teens were charged with ethnic intimidation, and the attack became part of a growing category of crimes reported in the U.S.: hate attacks against Hispanics.

Attacks on Hispanics grew 40 percent from 2003 to 2007, outpacing the estimated 16 percent increase in the Hispanic population in the U.S., according to FBI statistics. Over the same time period, the total number of hate-crime incidents reported nationwide has remained steady.

"We do know from reports and from hate-group activity that there's a new focus on the Latino and immigrant populations," said Randy Blazak, director of the Hate Crimes Research Network at Portland State University in Oregon.

Since 2004, Blazak said, Ku Klux Klan rhetoric has take an "incredible shift from anti-black diatribes" toward hatred directed at Latinos.

Experts say the increase in violence targeting Hispanics nationally is likely even larger because hate crimes are underreported. They caution, however, that the FBI statistics are drawn from local law enforcement agencies, which have widely disparate standards for labeling crimes as hate crimes. Nassau and Suffolk counties have both reported substantial decreases in hate crimes against Hispanics in recent years.

Seven Patchogue-Medford High School students are accused in the fatal attack on Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero on Nov. 8, a death that has been classified as a bias crime. Mark Potok, head of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., a nonprofit organization that combats discrimination and bias crimes, said there also has been a sharp increase in the number of groups the organization labels as "hate groups," rising from 602 in 2000 to 888 last year.

"Our analysis is that the growth of these groups was driven almost entirely by their exploitation of the immigration issue," Potok said, referring to the contentious debate over the nation's porous borders and the number of nonresident immigrants in the United States.

The increase in hate crimes targeting Latinos, experts said, can be largely attributed to anti-immigrant rhetoric, and to the recent declining economy, which has led to fierce job competition, as well as anti-immigrant rhetoric.

In both Patchogue and Shenandoah, Pa., the attacks took place against the backdrop of inflammatory debates about undocumented immigrants.

Shenandoah is just 20 minutes away from the town of Hazleton, which passed a controversial ordinance to discourage residents from renting to or hiring undocumented immigrants. The ordinance did not withstand a court challenge.

In Shenandoah, a similar measure was proposed but tabled because of the legal challenge to Hazelton's ordinance.

It's been more than four months since Ramirez was killed, but some residents say tension still simmers between Hispanics and other members of the community, despite the formation of a task force and outreach programs.

"The situation essentially has not changed," said Agapito Lopez, a member of the Governor's Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs, Pennsylvania's long-established advocacy agency for Latino residents. "There's still fear in the Latino communities that they'll be subject to other harassment."

Last month, Shenandoah Mayor Thomas O'Neill, who was praised by the Latino community for his outreach efforts, abruptly tendered his resignation, effective Jan. 1. Some residents believe he was pressured to resign. O'Neill did not return calls last week.

Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, predicted the climate nationally will only get worse.

"I think you will see that hate crimes against Latinos will be on the rise for the next few years," he said. "You can see this throughout history. Every time the economy sours, we blame the newcomers."