A Long Island Village Takes a Stand Against Hate Crimes
Last year I attended the National League of Cities conference here in Denver, where I watched an outstanding documentary called, “Welcome to Shelbyville.” It was about a small city in Tennessee that was coming to grips with a growing Somali population and how immigration was changing the community.
The film could easily have been made about Colorado towns such as Greeley or Fort Morgan, where many East Africans have arrived to take jobs in the local meat processing plants. In fact, throughout the South, the West and the Midwest, these new “gateway” communities are experiencing the challenges and opportunities associated with immigration that only large urban centers experienced in the past.
My organization, the National Civic League, was involved in a statewide project funded by the Colorado Trust to do community dialogues focused on immigrant integration in 2007 and 2008. Immigration was a hot topic in Colorado and nationally during that period, but it was an issue that cut in unexpected ways, dividing conservative against conservative and posing perplexing challenges to liberals as well.
The Bush Administration, for instance, tried and failed to pass a comprehensive immigration bill during its second term, but Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a non-comprehensive (and one-sided) immigration bill focused strictly on enforcement that alliented Latino voters.
Since the onslaught of the Great Recession, other debates seem to have eclipsed immigration as hot button issues
In 2007, Robert Putnam, a liberal political scientist at Harvard, published “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century,” which found that ethic diversity was associated with lower levels of social trust. Putnam wasn’t arguing against immigration, quite the contrary. He was exploring the complexity of the issue, and the challenges for democratic institutions in which levels of social trust are a key to success.
On September 21, PBS stations will air a new documentary called “Not in Our Town: Light in the Darkness.” The documentary explores how a town in Long Island, New York, came to grips with a series of hate crimes that culminated in the murder of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero by a group of local teenagers. The documentary tracks efforts by local leaders to change the local atmosphere of fear and hate that led to the murder.
Patchogue Village Mayor Paul Pontieri held a series of meetings with Latino residents to understand the nature of the problem. New leaders emerged, including the victim’s brother, Joselo Lucero, who became a champion for justice and unity, and a local librarian-assistant named Gilda Ramos who had tried to warn people about the attacks. Thousands gathered at the local train station near the site of the attack for a candle light vigil in the rain.
The Suffolk County Police Department assigned Spanish-speaking officers to the village. The Patchogue-Medford Library began to serve as a link for the local immigrant population, providing a safe venue where people could meeting and discuss the issues. The schools got involved as well.
The film will be the center piece of a “Not in Our Town National Week of Action” from September 18-24. Public media outlets and other groups will hold screenings, events and discussions on hate crime prevention and ways to make communities safer.
Since the onslaught of the Great Recession, other debates seem to have eclipsed immigration as hot button issues—namely jobs, deficit and debt, which isn’t surprising in a way. In a faltering economy there are fewer jobs and immigration tends to slacken, but the recent horror in Norway, where an anti-immigrant fanatic attacked kids at a Labor Party youth camp, was a reminder that communities and countries ignore the issue of immigrant integration at their own peril.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.