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

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

ByABC News
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."