On July 12, 2008, a 25-year-old Mexican man, an illegal immigrant and father of two, Luis Ramirez, was brutally beaten by four young men, all from the same high school and all on the football team. When it was over, Ramirez was left convulsing on the street where it happened, in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. He was taken to a nearby hospital where he died from head injuries two days later. This tragic story is part of a larger story in which local and national debates on immigration intersect.
Two years earlier, in the city of Hazelton, PA, Republican Mayor, Lou Barletta, convinced the Hazelton City Council to pass an ordinance that would fine landlords for renting to and businesses for hiring illegal immigrants. It also identified English as the town’s official language. Hazelton had seen a substantial increase in its Latino population from 5% in 2000 to 30% in 2006. This part of Pennsylvania, once booming because of its large deposits of anthracite coal and later, because of its substantial manufacturing concerns, had been depressed for decades as those industries declined. This new rush of immigration followed new jobs in the town’s industrial park. Initially, Mayor Barletta saw all this as a sign of progress. The Latino community in turn also viewed him positively. Mayor Barletta invited retired ophthalmologist, Dr. Agapito Lopez, to work with him as part of the city authority. Dr. Lopez, returning from a symposium in Texas on city business, found that the Mayor had begun the process of enacting an anti-immigration ordinance—the Illegal Immigration Relief Act. Without consulting him or any other Latino community leaders, Mayor Barletta launched a campaign against illegal immigrants. Lopez argued that all Latinos began to be treated differently, because no one can see who is legal and who is not. According to Lopez, Mayor Barletta’s inflammatory language, describing illegal immigrants as parasites, led to a rise in hostility against Latinos in Hazelton. The law was passed and went into effect in September 2006. Lopez and others worked with PRLDEF, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, and others to challenge that law. It was eventually found to be unconstitutional in the PA Federal Court and is currently being appealed by the town of Hazelton.
“This law was copied,” according to Dr. Lopez, “almost verbatim” from the language used by San Bernardino, CA, when it considered the same type of ordinance. San Bernardino did not ultimately enact this law, but “similar laws are being considered in over 100 cities in the United States,” Lopez said. The inflammatory language used in much of the debate by politicians and a broad array of media around the country has aggravated local tensions regarding immigration. Dr. Lopez contends that Mayor Barletta’s motivation in shifting to an anti-immigrant position was to gain a wider audience as he launched his campaign for Congress, a campaign he lost. While many have rejected these anti-immigrant views, others, including Shenandoah, have considered implementing similar of laws.
Shenandoah, a small town, just one and a half square miles in size, lies 15 miles southwest of Hazelton. It has a small Latino population, which has grown from 2.8% in 2000 to almost 10% today—about 500 in a town of 5600. It has experienced a decline similar to Hazelton’s as coal and manufacturing jobs have disappeared, but has not rebounded in the same way. The median income in 2007 was $23,400 as compared with $34,800 in Hazelton.
Over the past two years, since the beginning of the debate in Hazelton, Shenandoah has experienced its share of tensions. Many Latinos or those involved with Latinos, like Crystal Dillman, the mother of Luis Ramirez’s two children, often heard people calling them names or muttering under their breath as they passed. Sometimes, young kids would tell them to go back to Mexico. Mr. Ramirez had come to Shenandoah six years earlier and worked picking crops and in factories. He had taken over the role of father for Dillman’s daughter and had two children of his own with her.
After Ramirez’s death, Gladys Limón, of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), began representing Dillman and her family. Limón became alarmed when local law enforcement officials took two weeks to charge the defendants. They claimed it was just a street fight gone bad in spite of witnesses who heard anti-Mexican remarks. She contacted the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division and asked them to monitor the situation. They have since launched their own investigation into the case.
Under pressure, local law enforcement authorities will now try the four teens. Two of the four, Brandon Piekarski, 16, and Collin Walsh, 17, are being tried as adults. They are being charged with homicide, ethnic intimidation and other counts. Derrick Donchak, 18, is charged with aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation and other counts. The fourth assailant has not been named because he will be tried as a juvenile after the other three cases adjudicated. All were members of the football team; Mr. Donchak was its starting quarterback.
The inclusion of the ethnic intimidation charge defines Ramirez’s murder as a hate crime. Besides bringing federal attention as well as national media coverage, labeling it a hate crime increases the sentencing possibilities. Limón says, “This is not just a local story. It is a national crisis. In the last five years, hate crimes against Latinos have increased by 40%.”
According to the FBI’s Hate Crimes webpage, in 2007, 61% of hate crimes motivated by ethnicity or national origin were committed against Latinos. Limón says, “inflammatory rhetoric by irresponsible politicians and media condone anti-immigrant attacks. Legal and illegal immigrants are equally vulnerable to this kind of violence. The laws, like those passed in Hazelton, are part of a national trend in which local officials try to take federal matters into their own hands. They really seek to criminalize immigrants.”
Right-wing hate groups like the Voice of the People, in Pennsylvania, are part of this conversation. “They have increased their membership using anti-immigration issues as a recruiting tool. The majority of those involved in hate crimes are white men, between the ages of 15 and 25,” says Limón. Even national media, like Lou Dobbs Tonight, on CNN, have made immigration central to their coverage. Lou Dobbs did a “Special Report” from Hazelton, PA, praising the ordinance passed by the city. In fact, they promoted, on the show’s CNN website, another website soliciting money for Hazelton’s legal defense. Lou Dobbs’ webpage for the “Special Report” is also featured on David Dukes’ website. The connections are clear.
When the Voice of the People organized an anti-immigrant rally, Catholic churches, Dr. Lopez and Ms. Limón, among others, organized a Unity Rally to offer a more tolerant alternative. Mayor Thomas O’Neill attended. Although Limón initially found him to be among those slow to act, she says he did a lot of soul searching and attended the Unity Rally. By calling Ramirez’s killing a ‘tragedy,’ he became allied in the eyes of some as supporting illegal immigrants. During a subsequent town meeting, he was pressed by some residents to resign. Under pressure, he did so. It will go into effect on January 1, 2009. “The climate is so toxic now. When immigrants’ civil rights are violated, there is so much apathy,” says Limón.
Monsignor Flannigan’s Catholic church, the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in Shenandoah, serves the majority of Latinos in that town—about 150 families out of 450. Most of Shenandoah’s Latinos are Mexican, as was Mr. Ramirez. Although Ramirez did not attend this church, Monsignor Flanigan presided over his funeral and arranged for his body to be sent back to his family in Mexico.
According the Monsignor, many Latinos began to feel uncomfortable in Hazelton after the ordinance was passed. Some started attending his church in Shenandoah. “At that time, there was a slight increase in the number of Latino parishioners at our church,” said the Monsignor. “We do everything we can to teach against that mindset.” Regarding Ramirez’ death, the Monsignor said, “The majority of the town came together after the tragedy. Churches have addressed these issues in their sermons. People are just tired now. They want to go back to their lives.”
While that is surely true for most people, Crystal Dillman is left with the feeling that, in fact, things are “a million times worse.” She is left with three children to raise on her own. She says many Latinos have been supportive, but many are also scared. She does not feel safe and cannot imagine how it will be to raise her children in a town where their father was so brutally killed. She feels people have tried to demonize Luis Ramirez and wants people to know he was a good man and a good father, who took care of his family. It is a tragic end to a tragic story playing itself out in Shenandoah and many other cities around the country.
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