Communities in the Tri-State area have seen an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment lately – with angry critics of present immigration laws not always able to distinguish people who immigrated here legally from the illegal aliens about whom they complain.
Anger against people of different ethnicities has manifested itself in ways ranging from frustrated letters to this newspaper to more serious incidents resulting in injury or death.
In the past three weeks in Hoboken, anti-Semitic graffiti was written on a building, and a Vietnamese tourist was allegedly attacked by a Latino man from Bayonne who allegedly first yelled an anti-Asian slur at him from his car. In Old Bridge, police are investigating whether the June assault and murder of an Indian American professor by a group of teens was racially motivated.
People with a Hispanic last name fear they will be targeted whether they’re here legally or not, Vega said.
All of this comes four months after the state of Arizona passed a law to force people to present documentation, upon law enforcement request, proving they are in the country legally. While some believe the law could result in a witch hunt of anyone who looks different, others say it will keep criminals south of the state’s border with Mexico. Such laws are being considered in 12 other states.
History of hate
According to The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation website, anti-immigrant sentiment tends to ebb and flow, particularly increasing during times of recession and war.
The site notes that for example, “After the outbreak of World War I in 1914, American attitudes toward immigration began to shift. Nationalism and suspicion of foreigners were on the rise, and immigrants’ loyalties were often called into question.”
Union City Mayor and New Jersey State Sen. Brian Stack, whose city has the second largest population of Cuban immigrants in America next to Miami, said last week that the anti-immigrant sentiments could be the result of the events taking place on the national level including the poor economy and the Arizona bill.
Though he understands the frustration of people who are angry about those issues, Stack said that many are wrongly taking out their frustrations on immigrants.
“These are good, hard-working families,” he said. “They [come here] looking for a better life; that speaks volumes about our country.”
While Stack agrees that the United States needs to further examine immigration reform, he doesn’t like the present solutions.
“The Arizona law is a disgrace,” he said. “I’m ashamed to say that happened in our lifetime.”
Stack said several of his constituents have reached out to him on both a state and local level with concerns about that bill, but not one has said that he or she supports the law.
“In New Jersey, I think we’re more of a progressive state,” he said. “But it shouldn’t happen in any state.”
Bhalla on bias
Hoboken Councilman Ravi Bhalla, the first Asian American person to serve on a town council in Hudson County, agreed that although immigration reform may be a national or state issue, the repercussions are felt at a local level.
“Even though these things are happening in Arizona, they’re broadcast on television and have a real life impact on Hoboken,” said Bhalla.
Bhalla said that the recent rash of bias incidents in the region could be attributed to a general backlash against immigrants or against anyone else perceived as different.
On the other hand, there could be a more positive way of looking at it, he said.
“Maybe to some extent people are more comfortable reporting hate crimes,” said Bhalla. “That might be a reflection of an increase of confidence that people have in county and local law enforcement officials.”
Bhalla said he hopes that the professionalism and commitment the Hoboken Police Department has demonstrated in investigating bias incidents gives the community some measure of confidence that they can report such incidents to the police.
Frustration comes from lack of immigrant reform
But what should the United States do, if anything, about people who slip into the United States illegally? Should they be looked at as a drain on resources, or scrappy humans who are desperate for the same dream as those already here?
The debate continues to rage as South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham proposes amending the Constitution so that babies born in the United States to illegal immigrant parents are no longer considered citizens. Right now, the 14th Amendment says that all babies born in this country are legal residents. Some people refer to newborn children of illegal residents as “anchor babies” because they help their parents gain a legal tie to the country.
West New York Mayor Silverio “Sal” Vega said last week that the frustration for many comes from the fact that in over 30 years, there has not been a reform bill for immigration.
Because of the growing frustrations, individuals with a Hispanic last name now have a fear that they will be targeted regardless of whether they’re here legally or not, he said.
Vega said Americans must proceed with caution to not alienate certain groups when determining what the next course of legal action should be for immigration.
Although reform may have to take place on a federal level, Sen. and Mayor Stack said that one of the most important things individuals can do to bring about change is to stop people in their tracks when they hear someone else spewing hateful comments, and encourage open-minded discussion on the issues.
“On a local level we can have more of an effect,” he said. “By bringing people closer together with different events, festivals, celebrating a flag raising together – a parade is not the answer, but it shows acceptance of people. That little step right there is a step in the right direction.”
Hope for the future
All of the local officials agreed that education and discussion is key to understanding others and keeping violence and hatred at bay.
“In West New York over the past century, I think people have been very understanding of immigrants,” said Vega, pointing to the various groups, from Germans to Cubans, who have found solace in the town. “West New York has always been very accepting.”
Sen. and Mayor Stack agreed that the situation is similar in Union City, which boasts a high Latino population but to his knowledge has not had a reported hate crime in recent years.
“In Union City there’s general acceptance among the groups,” he said. “I think Union City could teach a lesson in how to get along.”
Councilman Bhalla said that a connection between immigrant communities and the police needs to be created before any devastating violent incidents occur.
“There [has] to be heightened dialogue with those vulnerable communities in order for law officials to understand what’s happening on the ground,” Bhalla said.
Additionally, he said, there needs to be more awareness and enforcement of anti-bullying laws in schools, which is where, he said, harassment of minorities – racial, gender, and sexual orientation – begins.
Lana Rose Diaz can be reached at email@example.com.