Column: Remove hate speech from immigration debate

Migrant farmworkers at a North Fork vineyard. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)
Migrant farmworkers at a North Fork vineyard. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

It was a sunny August afternoon last year when we at the paper got word of police activity — a possible drug bust — in Mattituck. It turned out a 2-year-old boy had fallen from a second story window, dropping through open Bilco doors and landing in a basement below. He was airlifted to Stony Brook University Medical Center and, miraculously, escaped any major injuries.

Who wouldn’t say Aug. 27, 2013, was a good day for our area?

Well, plenty of people, apparently.

You see, the boy’s name was Javier Cruz. Here are some excerpts from news readers’ reactions to our online story:

“The mother was probably chasing her other 4 or 5 toddlers away from the rest of the open windows.”

“How old is the mother, cause they all look like kids themselves having the anchor babies.”

“Because you can never have too many illegal Hispanics on the North Fork!”

The only conclusion one can draw from comments like these is that the mother’s race and/or ethnicity had something to do with the child falling out a window.

Consider that on any given day, one simply has to type “child falls through window” into a Google news search to learn the sad reality: Children fall out of windows every day across the U.S.

Some die.

What typically accompanies these stories are photos of parents or other caretakers, or the toddlers themselves. What’s apparent in these photos is that child-related window accidents don’t correlate with any particular race or ethnicity. Neither does falling in general, which also happens to be among the leading causes of accidental child deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

Many accidents, arrests and other unfortunate incidents reported in the news involving people with Hispanic last names end up generating comments ranting against “illegals” — regardless of the facts. But, as many of us realize, this type of response isn’t exclusive to mean-spirited, uninformed and anonymous web commenters. Sad to say, among Americans today, there’s a widespread social tolerance of anti-Hispanic remarks, which no longer holds true for other races or ethnic groups.

That’s become even clearer in recent weeks, as our vitriol and hatred have been on no better display than in the current reaction against waves of children entering the U.S. as the result of a humanitarian crisis in Central America.

Consider these reader responses to a recent column by Newsday writer Lane Filler entitled “We should let immigrant kids in.” (Is that really so bold a statement to make?)

“Patch the kids up and send them home. If they would like to be an American, they would be welcome to apply exactly like my grandparents did.”

“They can also stay in Mr. Filler’s house as far as I’m concerned. I’m sure that he can use all of them as servants.”

“These stupid women should keep their legs closed. They are in a bad situation and they keep having kids and then they want for the USA to support them … please!!!”

This is the type of language that gets people killed.

Think of Marcelo Lucero of Patchogue, an Ecuadorean who was attacked by seven youths and stabbed to death in Patchogue in 2008. The then-teenager who did the stabbing, Jeffrey Conroy, is serving a 25-year prison sentence for first-degree manslaughter as a hate crime. The six others were each sentenced to five to eight years behind bars.

Prosecutors established that the youths were attacking Hispanics for sport. So not only was the Lucero family destroyed, but so were those of several non-Hispanic families living here legally. The investigation into the crime also determined that other teens in the area had long been known to do the same.

Now, Hispanic immigrants are being attacked on a regular basis in Riverhead.

Riverhead Councilman John Dunleavy was right last week when he said prejudice comes from families. Adults making anti-Hispanic or anti-immigrant remarks online, over dinner, while watching television or drinking beer at a barbecue might not realize they’re filling the ears of listening children and teens with debilitating hatred — hatred that not only interferes with personal growth and development, but can result in violence.

So yeah, there’s an immigration problem in the United States; people are crossing the border for a better life for their families — something even the biggest hardliner admits he’d do, too, if the situation were reversed — and the government seems powerless to do anything about it. And yeah, some immigrants do get caught driving drunk or committing crimes, just like other people do.

But when John Smith gets a DWI, an entire race doesn’t get damned for it.

And if a white woman’s baby falls, what follows is sympathy for the child and the family. Never hatred.

Michael White, editor
Michael White is the editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected] or 631-298-3200, ext. 152.