Anti-Immigrant Sentiment Grows on SI

(Photo via El Diario)

Honduran-born day laborer Pedro Maldonado remembers the summer of 2010 as one in which fear and violence reigned over the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Port Richmond on Staten Island. At the time, the New York Police Department (NYPD) recorded 11 anti-Mexican cases of assault in the area, while organizations documented up to 21 such incidents.

Maldonado, 56, a resident of the neighborhood known as “Little Mexico,” describes the attacks perpetrated seven years ago as “the ugliest thing a day laborer can live through.” However, he adds that they are nothing compared to the anti-immigrant sentiment now prevailing in the traditionally conservative borough.

“The anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant sentiment feels heavier since Trump turned up. Seventeen years ago, blacks were attacking us just to mug us; they would say anti-Mexican slurs to scare us. Now, it is different: Now, it is the white Trump fanatics who want us out, said Maldonado, who has lived in Port Richmond since 1991. “The pro-Trump whites do not insult us to steal from us; they do so because that is how they feel. It’s as if Trump had given them permission to be racist.”

Gonzalo Mercado, executive director and co-founder of La Colmena, explained that there is a clear difference between the incidents in 2010 and the current situation.

“In 2010, we saw opportunity attacks with a set pattern. They would generally occur during the evening on weekends, when day laborers returned from work with their cash pay in hand,” said Mercado. “What we are seeing now is different, as the harassers are not African-American, but white.”

“Ever since the presidential election last year, many day laborers and organizations have been the target of verbal harassment and threats, including threats of calling immigration authorities, but my office has no knowledge of a rekindling of attacks, muggings or physical assaults the way we saw them in 2010,” said Council member Deborah Rose.

Threats to call immigration

While the police say that there has been no increase in physical assaults, the anti-immigrant sentiment manifests itself through wage theft and housing discrimination, according to Favio Ramírez, executive director of El Centro del Inmigrante.

“We have observed a 150 percent rise in wage theft reports involving white contractors threatening to call immigration authorities if the day laborer reports them,” said Ramírez.

The organization used to receive one or two reports per week, compared to five it receives now. Ramírez pointed out that, in the last three months, the agency only saw two cases of day laborers who were victims of muggings and assault, and that they were crimes of opportunity.

On the other hand, some residents have been reporting difficulties renting houses and apartments and have been threatened by their landlords. One of the most well-known cases in the borough is that of Mexican-born Carolina Olivares and her son Eric Gómez, who were arrested in August by Immigration and Customs Control (ICE) agents after their landlord allegedly turned them in for being late on their rent payment. The detention occurred in front of their apartment in Port Richmond.

Jacinta Noriega, a housekeeper from Mexico, said that “looking like an immigrant” is the new obstacle people face when trying to find housing in the borough.

“Many landlords do not want to rent to Hispanics. They say that we make their homes ugly and that their properties are worth less because of us. They do not ask us openly, but they always want to know if we have papers. The way they find out is by asking if we flew into the country and how long ago,” said Noriega, who makes use of El Centro del Inmigrante’s food pantry.

Less work for Hispanic day laborers

Mercado said that another effect of racial discrimination and the anti-immigrant sentiment is that there is less work for Hispanic day laborers. Still, other sectors, such as restaurants, benefit from employing Latino workers even in cases when the owners openly express their support of President Donald Trump and his anti-immigrant policies.

“We frequently see home owners and contractors, most of them white, who do not hire Latino day laborers. It is possible that they are avoiding being confronted by other Trump sympathizers,” said Mercado. “Many businesses here are proud to publicly display pro-Trump emblems and paraphernalia, even if all their workers are immigrant and Latino. It is a constant quandary.”

Maribel Torres, also from Mexico and a member of La Colmena’s cooperative of housekeepers, said that the people who request their services also support the anti-immigrant policies promoted by President Trump.

“Many housewives who hire the services of the cooperative have soap and candles with Trump propaganda. On the one hand, they take advantage of our work and, on the other, they reject us because of our origin,” said Torres. “I know of immigrants who have been insulted in buses. Here on the Island, things are not like in Manhattan and other New York boroughs. Here you cannot walk around with that much freedom and safety.”

More Spanish-speaking officers

Only three of the 51 members of the New York City Council are Republican, and two of those represent Staten Island. The borough was the only one in the city where Trump won in November’s general election, specifically with 57 percent of the votes.

The Latino community has grown in recent years to 18.4 percent of the population, but the borough continues to be predominantly white.

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Activists are concerned that pro-Trump rhetoric, such as the comments made by Republican ex-Congressman Michael Grimm, may worsen the situation endured by Latinos on the island, and fear a wave of attacks similar to the one seen in 2010.

In response, day laborer organizations have formed alliances with the African-American and white communities to deal with the growing harassment and anti-immigrant sentiment in the borough.

Ramírez said that the police have tried to improve their relations with the Latino community since the 2010 attacks. Unlike seven years ago, he said, there are Spanish-speaking officers in key positions such as the Community Affairs Bureau, but added that there still is not enough Hispanic representation.

“We have held public hearings with the police, and officers are encouraging people to report possible hate crimes. We are seeing an outreach that we did not see back in 2010,” said Ramírez. “However, we need more Spanish-speaking Latino officers, especially in Port Richmond.”

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