With the government shutdown crisis finally over, President Obama has pledged once more to make immigration reform the centerpiece of his second term agenda. But change couldn't come sooner for many immigrant communities, who have seen the battlefront for immigration equality steadily shift from the court rooms and legislative halls to the streets outside their homes, schools, and playgrounds. Mirta Ojito's new book Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town, which went on sale last week, documents the rising tide of hate crimes against immigrants and focuses on one such community that found itself the target of an onslaught of harassment and abuse, culminating in an incident that sent the community reeling and brought the issue of immigration reform right to their doorsteps.
On November 8, 2008, having had a few beers and an early dinner, Marcelo Lucero, an undocumented Ecuadorian immigrant, took a late-night stroll with his childhood friend Angel Loja near the train tracks in Patchogue, a seaside village of twelve thousand people in Suffolk County, New York, a county that only three years earlier had been touted by Forbes magazine as one of the safest and wealthiest in the United States. It is also one of the most segregated counties.
Before the mild moonlit night was over, Lucero was stabbed and killed by a gaggle of teenagers from neighboring towns, who had gone out hunting for “beaners,” the slur that, as some of them later told police, they used for Latinos. Earlier that night, they had harassed and beaten another Hispanic man—a naturalized US citizen from Colombia named Héctor Sierra. The teenagers also confessed to attacking Hispanics at least once a week.
Lucero was not the first immigrant killed by an enraged mob in the United States, and he most certainly will not be the last. At least two other immigrants were killed in the Northeast in 2008, but Lucero’s case is especially poignant because he was killed by a high school star athlete in an all-American town where people of mostly Italian and Irish descent proudly display US flags on the Fourth of July and every year attend a Christmas parade on Main Street. If it happened here, it can happen anywhere.
As horrifying as this particular incident was, the residents of Patchogue are by no means alone in this struggle. Ojito reports that between 2003 and 2007, attacks and hate crimes against Hispanic immigrants increased by 40%, and in 2008, the FBI reported 7,793 hate crime incidents, 64% of which were anti-Hispanic related. In 2009 alone, an estimated “148,400 hate crimes were reported to the National Crime Victimization Survey,” yet only about 45% of these crimes were reported to the police, and 19% of those who did not report an incident to the police did so because they believed the “police could not or would not do anything to help.”
With the murder of Lucero approaching its five year anniversary, and with residents still shaken from the aftermath, Hunting Season arrives at a critical time in the conversation about immigrants' rights. Using the events of that night as a lens, Ojito explores the growing presence of immigrants in suburbia, and how the struggle to assimilate into non-urban areas—which offer fewer resources and a less welcoming environment—has led to isolation, tension, and violence throughout the country. “How can young men still in high school feel so protective of their turf and so angry toward newcomers that they can commit the ultimate act of violence,” asks Ojito. “Taking a life that, to them, was worthless because it was foreign?” The answer becomes clear as she writes about the lives of the teens who took part in the attack, exposing the internalized messages of racism and anti-immigration that many of them had learned at home and from other adult members of their community.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mirta Ojito, a newspaper reporter since 1987, has worked for the Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, and, from 1996 to 2002, the New York Times, where she covered immigration, among other beats, for the Metro desk. She has received numerous awards, including a shared Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2001 for a series in the Times about race in America. The author of Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus, she is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York City.