A Catastrophic Silence
The killing of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant, on Long Island this month brought with it a cruel blessing. From a shocking crime — an assault by a gang of boys accused of making a hobby of hunting Latinos — came a chance for a stricken, divided community to bind old wounds and to bury anger.
Instead, the moment is collapsing into the same old shouting. Advocates for immigrants are condemning the Suffolk County executive, Steve Levy, as somehow complicit in the killing for his rigid devotion to immigration enforcement. Mr. Levy is lashing back and trying to distribute blame fairly. He wonders, for example, how a gang out of “A Clockwork Orange” could have run free for so long, firing BB’s and hateful slurs at random victims, jumping and punching them for sport.
Why, he asks, were their friends and acquaintances silent? It’s a fair question, but there is another silence Mr. Levy should focus on.
The silence that echoes most painfully is that of the Latino victims of these and other hidden crimes. Mr. Lucero’s death has set loose a flood of stories of abuse and harassment. A police precinct commander lost his job over his handling of two other attacks against Latino men that fatal day, an acknowledgment that in Suffolk, equal protection may not always apply to everyone.
Suffolk is not the only place with hate crimes or fearful immigrants. The same silence ruled in Postville, Iowa, where children worked brutal hours on a slaughterhouse killing floor. It hung over a factory in New Bedford, Mass., that systematically cheated workers of wages and the Louisiana shipyards where legal guest workers were held in modern-day indentured servitude.
The silence of undocumented immigrants is the catastrophic silence of people taught by legislative harassment and relentless stereotyping to live mute and afraid.
Mr. Levy sees no role for himself in this drama.
“Since when is enforcing the law seen as something negative and inflammatory?” he asked his critics this week. Here is an attempt to explain.
The fixation on uprooting and expelling immigrants is negative because it doesn’t work. It’s inflammatory because it tears communities and families apart.
When you turn the local police into la migra, as Mr. Levy once tried to do, you turn immigrants into the mute prey of criminals. When you relentlessly pick fights with advocates who criticize you, as Mr. Levy has, you are unable to stand with them when disaster strikes.
And when you tolerate the poisonous notion that “illegal” is a stain that can never be erased, with no path to atonement, then you turn the undocumented into a permanent class of presumed criminals who have no rights.
The undocumented do have rights. They have the right to be paid for their labor, to speak freely and to congregate in public places without fear.
Mr. Levy has an agile mind and a commitment to doing what he sees as right. There is a way for him to make Suffolk a better place. He can give the jobs of deportation and border control back to the federal government and concentrate on making things safer and more lawful in his community. He can stand up for the rights of the undocumented, like day laborers, to congregate safely and to be paid for their work, to prevent federal crimes like wage theft and to keep off-the-books businesses from eroding pay and conditions for all workers.
He can pursue common ground with his Latino constituents — even those who are angry at him but would jump at the chance to sit down and talk. He can listen to Marcelo Lucero’s brother, Joselo, who has been a voice for peace. He can lead his county into the calm silence of reconciliation instead of silence based on fear.
copyright New York Times Company 2008