Five years ago this month, Marcelo Lucero was killed in the Village of Patchogue by a band of hate-filled teenagers. These teens, who regularly went “beaner-hopping” (their offensive term for riding around and attacking people they took to be Mexican immigrants), surrounded Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant. When Lucero sought to defend himself, one teen, Jeffrey Conroy, stabbed him, causing Lucero’s death.
Lucero’s death brought Suffolk County into the state and national spotlight as a hot spot for anti-immigrant politics and sentiment. The Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the nation’s pre-eminent anti-hate-group organizations, described a “Climate of Fear” where toxic politics—fueled and driving fears of demographic change at a time of economic uncertainty—rendered such violence permissible, and Latinos throughout Suffolk lived in fear.
Five years later, what have we learned, and where do we stand as a county and a region?
Demographic change has continued, and Suffolk is more diverse than ever. According to the 2010 Census, roughly one out of four Suffolk residents are people of color. And roughly one out of seven was born outside of the United States. This diversity is a boon for our county—bringing with it rich cultural traditions and exchanges, not to mention the economic contributions of immigrants to our local economy.
Thankfully, we seem to be learning from our past, and this continued demographic change has not provoked another anti-immigrant surge. Instead, it appears that the dawn of a new era is upon us. Instead of vilifying immigrants, many of Suffolk County’s elected officials are now working hand-in-hand with immigrant communities to begin identifying and addressing their needs.
For instance, one year ago, Suffolk’s new administration (which one of us leads) adopted Executive Order 10, which guaranteed that residents with limited-English proficiency (LEP) would be able to access free translation and interpretation services in all county government offices. And county government has since worked closely with community organizations to ensure the effective implementation of the order, which took effect on November 14th.
Moreover, during this year’s debate on comprehensive immigration reform, the loudest voices across Suffolk County, and all Long Island, have been those of immigrants and their allies. The marches, rallies, forums and other actions that have occurred have all supported a path to citizenship. Long Island’s congressional delegation has taken note, with all of the region’s House of Representatives members publicly supporting comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
In short, the toxic “climate of fear” is slowly but surely being replaced by a climate of tolerance and respect, in which immigrant communities have entered into a productive dialogue with their elected officials. In this new dialogue, scapegoating immigrants is unacceptable, and we have opted instead to work together to identify points of commonality and work towards solutions that work for all Suffolk’s residents.
Quite some time has passed since the days of extremist anti-immigrant groups rallying in Suffolk County, in some cases with the support of national anti-immigrant groups. And, mercifully, we have not recently seen the same type of violence that tragically took Marcelo Lucero’s life.
This does not mean that all the animus that fueled that violence has been eliminated; we must, of course, remain vigilant.
But we feel confident that a new chapter in Suffolk County’s history has begun—one in which our communities and leaders embrace diversity and the contributions of all residents. This would be the best possible conclusion to a tale that began with unspeakable tragedy.
Steve Bellone is the Suffolk County Executive. Javier H. Valdes is the co-executive director of Make the Road New York, the largest participatory immigrant rights organization in New York.
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