Hating Hispanics: Has Arizona Ignited Firestorm After Decade of Simmering Tension?

Activists say a decade of increasing discrimination has been inflamed by Az law.

July 16, 2010, 11:33 AM

July 19, 2010— -- Jumped by three men wielding chains and bats, Adolfo pleaded with his attackers to consider his family.

"They started calling me a stupid Mexican and threatening me," the 25-year-old Staten Island, N.Y., resident said. "I tried to ignore them but they kept saying, 'You stupid Mexican, we're going to kill you.'"

It was an attack, he said, that changed everything about his life in America.

"I always felt safe in this country," he said in Spanish. "I feel very alone now."

Adolfo, whose last name is being withheld by ABC News.com at his request, is not alone.

The country's changing demographics and ongoing struggle with immigration policy have stirred anti-Hispanic sentiment, said activists who reported anecdotal evidence that Arizona's controversial immigration law has contributed to a fresh round of discrimination.

"For us, there's always been a simmering anti-immigrant sentiment," said Lisa Navarrete, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, an Hispanic advocacy group. "What Arizona does, is it brings it to a whole new level."

And it seems to have brought it to places not normally regarded as hotbeds of racist activity.

New York City's Staten Island has seen as many as seven hate-crime beatings of Hispanic men since April. The attack on Adolfo was one of the first there. The situation has become so tense that the U.S. Department of Justice held a community forum last week.

New York City Councilwoman Debi Rose, whose district covers the Staten Island, said that while there are large and diverse immigrant populations living in the borough, Hispanics seem especially vulnerable right now, particularly the immigrants who fear arrest and deportation if they report the violence.

"I think the immigration debate has brought much more attention to who's living in the community," Rose said.

"And also people see the Mexican day laborers and they're working and they have money," she said. "Sometimes I think it's a crime of opportunity. Because you know people feel like they could rob them of their money and possessions and they wouldn't report it."

Adolfo, who was beaten unconscious and spent about a week in the hospital with a fractured skull, said he would have died if someone hadn't called police after finding him laying battered in the road.

"I was covered in blood and they probably thought I was dead so they left me there," he said of his attackers. " I lost consciousness and later woke up. I tried to drag myself to the door of my home, but I couldn't make it."

Adolfo, who came to the United States 14 years ago and is raising three children, has no plans to go back to his native Mexico, saying the U.S. is "my country, too."

But he's seen firsthand the increased hostility toward the Latino community in the months leading up to the passage of Arizona SB1070 and the approval that came less than three weeks after his beating. The law is scheduled to go into effect on Thursday.

"Everything changed after Arizona. You feel it. You feel insecure," he said. "You're treated like you don't belong, but we're here to work. We're raising families and contributing. Our children are American."

Navarrete, who is first-generation Cuban, said she believes racists and so-called Nativists are using the debate over the Arizona law as an excuse to not only broadcast their hatred for Hispanics, but also act upon it.

"It's given people license," she said. "We think immigration is the politically correct way, at least in people's minds, to talk about it."

Minutemen Project Founder: 'There's a Lot of Resentment Coming From the White Population'

Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minutemen Project, which calls itself an immigration law enforcement advocacy group, said that neither he nor his supporters condone violence, but that they do encourage "peaceful rebellion."

"I think there's a lot of resentment coming from the white population," Gilchrist said. "It goes to heritage."

"The resounding cry I hear is that we are tired of being treated like second-rate citizens in our own country," he said.

In 2001 Americans considered blacks to be the mostly likely target of discrimination, but according to a 2009 Pew Hispanic Center Survey, Americans considered Hispanics the most likely racial or ethnic group to be discriminated against, with one in four saying Hispanics are discriminated against "a lot."

But the same survey noted that 32 percent of Hispanics, about one-third of respondents, reported that they, a family member or a close friend had experience discrimination because of their racial background, down from 41 percent in 2007.

Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, said he believes that the fear of whites losing their majority is what is likely driving a lot of the animosity towards Hispanics, the fastest growing minority.

The U.S. Census prediction that whites will lose their majority by 2050 was a kind of death knell to some.

"It's not about urban sprawl, people taking jobs, which has been repeatedly been shown by real studies to be not be true," he said. "It's about the loss of white majority."

Potok, who tracks hate groups and their activities said the swell of interest in immigration policy in the last decade has created an opening for neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other well-organized hate groups to go mainstream.

"Hate groups have grown pretty much steadily in the last 10 years based almost exclusively on their exploitation of the immigration issue," Potok said, noting a 55 percent increase in the number of hate groups between 2000 and 2009.

And during that time the groups collectively abandoned their propaganda against blacks, Jews, Muslims and gays to go after Hispanics under the guise of supporting anti-immigration measures, he said.

"They were bright enough," Potok said, "to realize that broad swaths of the public agreed."

Documented hate crimes against Latinos have skyrocketed in the last decade.

Potok said the FBI reported a whopping 40 percent increase in anti-Latino hate crimes between 2003 and 2007 and that figure may be grossly underreported and are incredibly weak.

The FBI stats, based on state reports compiled from local law enforcement, showed between 6,000 and 10,000 hate crimes annually.

But a 2005 U.S. Department of Justice survey that looked at 3.5 years of victimization surveys led to a revised estimate of about 191,000 anti-Latino hate crimes each year.

Though the FBI stats show a 5.7 percent decrease in anti-Latino hate crimes in 2008, the most recent year for available data, Potok expects to see those numbers moved up again.

"It's gotten worse and worse more or less over the last year or so," he said of the blatant discrimination aimed toward Hispanics. ""In a sense it culminates in Arizona."

And it could get even more heated.

Signs of Anti-Hispanic Bias Popping Up Across the Country

Last week's publication of a list of illegal immigrants in Utah, complete with names, addresses and the due dates of pregnant women, was lauded by anti-immigration activists, but labeled a "witch hunt" by those on the other side of the debate.

Distributed to media and law enforcement by Concerned Citizens of the United States, the list of 1,300 names, and the residents addresses and phone numbers, has caused widespread panic after supporters demanded "immediate deportation."

Utah is considering a bill similar to Arizona's. In other states, including South Carolina and Nebraska, town councils have pass their own versions of anti-immigration laws, banning hiring or renting to illegal immigrants.

In other corners of the country, there have been signs of anti-Hispanic bias that, at the very least, sting members of the Latino community.

In Florida, hackers were accused of getting into the digital highway signs and changing messages over the Palmetto Expressway to read "No Latinos" and "No Tacos."

And in Idaho, the Bonner County Republican Central Committee was castigated by its opponents for refusing to acquiesce to this year's Bonner County Fair theme, "Fiesta at the Fair." The committee objected to the Spanish word fiesta.

Committee President Cornel Rasor explained their decision in a June 29 letter to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in which he told her his membership had voted to affirm the state's immigration law and that their stance on the word "fiesta" was evidence of their support.

"The Republicans at BCRCC want to make it very clear that English is our primary language, and callour booths 'Celebrate!,' he wrote. "We'd like to display some Arizona license plates if you have some to spare. Please let us know where we might obtain a couple."

In an e-mail to ABCNews.com, Rasor said the rally against the Spanish word "didn't seem to be a big deal." He pointed out his support for a local Latino congressman and said his opposition was to illegal immigrants only and not all Hispanics.

"This simple intent to support Arizona has been taken completely out of context," he wrote. "There were some in our committee who though the 'Fiesta' theme was poorly timed because of the illegal immigration issue."

But Gilchrist said some of the activists proclaiming the Arizona law unfair or unconstitutional need to think of the other side. He pointed to the recent rallies in protest of SB1070 and the images of Latinos taking to the streets waving flags from Mexico and other countries, calling the demonstrations "outright insults to our people."

When Latino communities respond in outrage to beatings and murders, he asked them to consider the murders of Americans at the hands of illegal immigrants.

"This is the wakeup call we as a nation need," he said. ""We're going to win this contest. It's a contest, not a war."

ABC News' Ray Sanchez contributed to this story.

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