NEW YORK (Reuters) - A wave of attacks by black youths against Mexican immigrants has provoked a police show of force and swift action by politicians worried about racial conflict in the remote New York City borough of Staten Island.
Gravely concerned about racial conflict in the middle of a hot summer, city authorities, immigrant advocates and the Mexican consulate have announced a series of measures aimed at reducing the violence even as they disagree over the cause of the attacks and how to stop them.
The situation has combined two of America’s most intractable social problems — the plight of inner-city black youths who lack jobs and opportunity, and the world of the migrant workers who flee poverty or violence at home in search of low-paying jobs that Americans generally refuse to take.
Police are investigating at least 10 incidents of beatings or robberies since April as hate crimes and in recent days have flooded the Port Richmond neighborhood with highly visible patrol cars, street officers and “eye in the sky” mobile watch towers that can be staffed by police.
Experts say the incidents are likely under-reported because illegal immigrants fearful of deportation are reluctant to report crimes to police. On the streets, Mexican immigrants tell enough stories about how they or their compatriots have been targeted to suggest more than 10 cases.
The police build-up began last week after a July 23 incident in which several young men yelling anti-Mexican slurs attacked a 31-year-old Mexican, breaking his jaw and cutting his scalp while stealing his backpack. Then last weekend three men beat a 17-year-old Mexican, stealing $10.
The beatings are often accompanied by anti-Hispanic epithets, and in some cases little or no money has been taken.
“It’s nothing more than racial hate,” said Gerardo Garcia, 29, of Acapulco, one of the many immigrant day laborers who gather at different points, hoping to get hired for the day.
“We try to do things right. We work. We go home. We’re not looking for fights. But we’re always confronted by groups of four or five black kids who always want to fight. They’re not looking for money, they just want to fight.”
The sight of Hispanic men concentrating on street corners has unsettled communities across the United States, particularly when associated with littering or public drunkenness.
Staten Island, which is less diverse than other New York City boroughs, is still getting used to them. Sometimes called the forgotten borough, Staten Island is geographically closer to New Jersey than to the rest of New York City and, with the smallest population of the five boroughs, it rarely receives as much attention.
The youths may been looking for easy targets for robberies of men who carry large amounts of cash on payday.
“It’s a crime of opportunity, not just because they are Mexicans,” said Debi Rose, the city council representative of the neighborhood and one of the officials who on Tuesday announced a $300,000 anti-bias program for high schools and fund-raising to buy more security cameras, among other steps.
“The young African American males involved are not exemplary of the community. We are working hard to ensure that we don’t demonize young African American men,” she said.
The poor economy has hit both minority groups hard. Jobs for teenagers are scarce and the city has cut funding for recreational programs that might keep them out of trouble.
Mexican day laborers who commanded $120 for a full day of work before the recession now say they are lucky to get $80.
“I just hope that at some point these young African Americans realize we are on the same side. We are both minorities. We are suffering from discrimination in various parts of the country,” said Ruben Beltran, the Mexican consul.
Even before the most recent attacks, the Mexican consulate hired a counselor to roam Staten Island, advising Mexicans of their rights and encouraging them to report crimes.
“Across the country there is a wave of anti-immigrant violence. There are people who are particularly hateful of the undocumented who are seen as less than human,” said Ana Maria Archila of Make the Road, an immigrant advocate group.
“Now it just seems so much more gratuitous and intense than ever before,” she said. “I’m not sure anyone knows what the right solution is.”
Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Eric Beech