In our neck of the woods, here in suburban Long Island, New York, two recent tragic incidents have shocked newspaper readers and TV watchers, whether they live in these parts, elsewhere in the country…or in some distant place on the planet. These incidents raise many disturbing questions about the state of the American society in this 21st Century.
The first tragic incident was the slaying of a man because of his ethnicity and Hispanic background, allegedly by a young bully with a knife running with a pack of six other teens the police say were on the prowl in the night hours seeking immigrants. The Suffolk County district attorney said the gang was looking for any immigrant to beat up. The victim they found was a 38 year old man from Ecuador, Marcello Lucero. His “sin” that instigated the murder? His background, color and status as an immigrant. (After the murder, other Hispanic men have been coming forward to describe alleged attacks by these and other teenage suspects.) The “sport” of these youths is called “beaner jumping.”
Just before midnight, near the local railroad station, the teens spotted two men walking and gave chase. One man got away. Marcello was encircled by the young bullies and one put a knife in his chest. Evidently the group made off, continued to hang together, and was rounded up by Suffolk County’s finest without a fuss. No big deal, it would appear, to the attackers.
This event that made international headlines took place in a village called Patchogue, in eastern Long Island, about 60 miles from Manhattan’s Times Square. (In another state, such as in the Midwest, this would be considered a small city.) Patchogue has long been a retailing center, and is a gateway to the storied pleasure island just offshore, Fire Island. Like a number of neighboring towns, this older village has attracted a number of immigrants, most seeking work and opportunity far from their native countries. Some come and go, and others stay, settle down, build families and pursue the American dream.
The government of Ecuador reacted immediately to the New York events and people there poured out into the streets to mourn their countryman and demand justice in the United States. Justice was swift; a grand jury indicted the young men on the prowl. The people of Patchogue Village also poured out onto the streets, to mourn, and to condemn the alleged racist attacks in their hometown. There were rallies attracting hundreds of local residents, decrying the violence and intolerance. But there’s more to this story.
You may remember the news stories from several years back, about the nearby hamlet of Farmingville being “overrun” by immigrant workers, most of them Hispanic. One house contained dozens of immigrants squeezed into tiny spaces. The parking lot of the nearby 7-11 convenience store was filled in the early morning hours with day laborers eager for work. Contractors, landscapers, people with money looking for cheap laborers needing a day’s wages picked them up. The neighbors were riled up.
The local county legislator took on the issue. His name is Steve Levy. On many days this became the most important issue in his district. Mr. Levy went on to be elected to the New York State Assembly, served with distinction, and in time, was elected County Executive of Suffolk (population 1 million-plus). Steve Levy is a popular official; so much so that he ran unopposed with multiple party endorsements last time around. And in all his official posts he has been outspoken on the issue of illegal immigrants in Suffolk County. The burdens on public finances, on taxpayers, are more than they should bear, and the federal government should help the country address the issues.
He most assuredly is not a racist. Mr. Levy is concerned with a number of issues regarding the impact of illegal immigrants, and has called repeatedly on the federal government to deal with the issues. Not all of his press coverage on the issues has been favorable. And his independent positions on issues – and he has his finger on the mainstream pulse – have often put him in hot water with immigrant communities and their advocates. So when this murder occurred, blame was quick in coming – some put blame for an atmosphere of intolerance encouraged by County Executive Levy. Grossly unfair. His reaction to the tragedy is to us an example of a public official standing up, acting responsibly — and being accountable — to the residents of his county, whether native born or immigrant, “legal” or “illegal.”
He called on houses of worship to ask hard questions about how this happened and asked clergy to preach and pray about tolerance their communities. He suggested: In this weekend of reflection, let us talk frankly and openly – within our churches, synagogues, mosques, and within our schools and community centers, within our homes, and even within our souls – and confront the divisive factors of hate and intolerance…
County Executive Levy asked in correspondence to clergy / community leaders these questions:
- How can children, raised in a quiet suburban community not unlike the many others across the Island, harbor such twisted thoughts – beliefs that are the very anathema of what our great country represents?
- How could the hatred and intolerance that seethed inside these teenagers go unnoticed and unreported, by their friends, siblings, peers, teachers, and families?
- How can we all look past our differences to build better, stronger bridges anchored on common ground?
Mr. Levy pointed out that the good people of Patchogue had offered support and assistance to the Lucero family, and that spoke to the innate goodness that lies within the vast majority of our society.
The story goes on. There will be trials of the attackers, generating news headlines in the US and in Latin America and beyond. Elected officials in both countries (US and Ecuador) will continue to weigh in. The school that the teens attended has been rocked by these events. School officials and parents wrestle with the issues. The local daily, Newsday (one of the 10 largest papers in the US) has covered this story daily. CNN, Fox and other news outlets have been all over the story.
We ask our own questions:
- Could it be that the endless bashing of “illegal immigrants” in our midst (tune in to talk radio or certain cable programs to hear this first hand) instigate bad behavior? Encourage intolerance?
- Are local officials such as Mr. Levy or the elected mayor of Patchogue, Paul Pontieri, unfairly dealing with more macro issues – border control, determining immigration status, the burdens of providing health care through hospital emergency rooms, overcrowding in schools, etc. – without sufficient concern by federal officials with responsibility for these public policy issues?
- How can we as Americans do the right things about / for / with the undocumented immigrants in our midst – if they got here by other than legal means, overstayed their visa, etc? How can we be compassionate and considerate and tolerant. .. without condoning their actions (e.g., moving in front of the line ahead of those waiting in other countries for their legal immigration status)?
Most important, as the county executive asked, are we doing all that we can to tone down the anti-immigrant rhetoric…to create an atmosphere of tolerance? We are a indeed a Nation of Immigrants, some who came early on and some of us coming later. We need solutions now to issues involving immigration, not encouragement of hatred of immigrants in our midst.
Tomorrow: The tragic death of a Wal-Mart employee as a mob bent on shopping crushed him in an early morning melee.
Disclosure: Steve Levy is a long-time acquaintance and a public official that I have admired over his career for his demonstrated accountability to the public he serves. He is doing the right thing, not ducking any issues, in his handling of the events in his county. We’ve shared work on projects with Mayor Paul Pontieri and admire the way he has rallied his community to help immigrant families in their neighbors.