Slain Girl’s Family Demands Immigration Crackdown

Brian Rogers, Houston Chronicle, August 13, 2010

Family members of a teen gunned down last week railed against America’s immigration policy on Friday after learning one of the suspected gunmen was in the country illegally.

Melvin Alvarado, 22, and Jonathan Lopez-Torres, 18, have been charged with capital murder in the Aug. 7 shooting death of 14-year-old Shatavia Anderson.

Immigration officials have said Alvarado was deported in April 2008 and again in May 2009.

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The two men appeared Friday in court, where relatives of Anderson donned memorial T-shirts and called for tougher enforcement of immigration laws.

“I would like to see what they’re doing in Arizona done here,” Lambert [Shatavia’s uncle, Joe Lambert] said, referring to recent laws targeting illegal immigration in the Grand Canyon state.

Community activist Quanell X accompanied family members to court and also took a stand on the issue.

“I believe it is time that the immigration policy in this country has more teeth,” he said. “This man should not have been allowed to sneak into the country over and over again and snuff out the life of this little girl. We do, obviously, have a border problem.”

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Residents of Port Richmond–where an influx of newcomers from Latin America over the past decade has transformed the community–alternately blame the attacks on the economy, unemployment and the debate over Arizona’s immigration law.

And although most of the suspects were described as young black men and investigated for bias crimes, a grand jury has indicted only one of seven people arrested on a hate-crime charge.

But Isaias Lozano, a day laborer, said he knows why he was attacked and robbed in December by “morenos”–the Spanish word he uses to describe his black neighbors.

“They hate us because we’re Mexicans,” he said while sitting at El Centro del Inmigrante, a center for immigrant day workers. “They aren’t robbing just anybody.”

Across the United States, the immigration debate plays out in suspicion of outsiders and sometimes escalates into violence. Port Richmond, tucked in a corner of New York City that most visitors never see, is wrestling with the perennial question of how people from different backgrounds can live together and get along.

Some community leaders here blame the attacks on hoodlums preying on day laborers, who are perceived as easy targets because they often carry cash home from work. Others say the Arizona law is stirring up a climate of intolerance, even these thousands of miles away.

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Some of Port Richmond’s black residents assert that newcomers’ presence touches a nerve. Mike Mason, 47, a teacher who works in New Jersey, said the arrival of Mexican immigrants had changed the texture of the community.

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Between 2000 and 2008, the number of Hispanics living on the island grew roughly 40 percent, according to Census bureau statistics analyzed by City University of New York’s Latino Data Project, with much of that growth coming from the Mexican community.

Many of those began to coalesce around the Port Richmond neighborhood, which had long been predominantly black and low-income. The neighborhood’s main commercial thoroughfare, once marked by empty storefronts, suddenly came alive with Mexican businesses selling pinatas, bars playing Spanish-language heavy metal, and grocers stocking chilies and tomatillos. The neighborhood developed a new nickname: “Little Mexico.”

Mexicans soon began reporting that they were attacked by their black neighbors.

One organization documented 21 assaults against day laborers one summer in 2003. When a day laborer was viciously stabbed and killed two years later, neighbors quickly blamed the black community, until reputed Latin Kings gang members were charged with the man’s death.

In recent months, police have deployed additional foot and mounted patrols, a command post and Mexican-born officers to distribute bilingual fliers with safety tips. The FBI joined in creating a task force to look into civil rights abuses in the neighborhood. Residents have aired grievances at numerous town hall meetings.

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Rodolfo Olmedo was beaten and robbed of his cell phone and wallet on April 5. Four suspects have been arrested and charged; police investigated it as a bias crime, but a grand jury indicted the suspects only on robbery and gang assault charges.

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Olmedo, who was hospitalized for five days and was briefly in a coma, contends he was targeted because of his ethnicity, not because he had been involved in a related incident or because the suspects wanted to steal his belongings.

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“It was,” he said in Spanish, “a hate crime.”

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