Latino immigrants in Suffolk County say they are routinely harassed and taunted, and that hatred toward them had been percolating long before a hate crime killing of an Ecuadorean immigrant nearly a year ago, said a report released Wednesday.
The report, from the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, says that "an atmosphere conducive to racial violence" and anti-immigrant sentiment is fueled by the rhetoric of some Suffolk County officials, and that police have failed to take bias crimes seriously.
The report came as police began investigating the vandalization of a Latino church in Patchogue Tuesday night -- a crime that appears to be racially motivated, officials said.
"Latino immigrants in Suffolk County live in fear," says the report, which was based on months of research and interviews with more than 70 Latino immigrants, local religious leaders, community groups and business owners. "Low-level harassment is common. They are regularly taunted. ... Their houses and apartments are egged, spray-painted with racial epithets and riddled with bullets in drive-by shootings. Violence is a constant threat."
A spokesman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who is attacked by the researchers for supporting policies targeting illegal immigrants, said the politician did not immediately have a comment on the report. But in a statement released Tuesday, Levy said that he denounces ``all acts of crime and violence against all persons."
"We welcome any information that can be provided to assist the district attorney in pursuing accusations. Hopefully, this group can assist in the efforts we began several months ago to establish programs to foster greater acceptance in our communities," he said.
Levy has signed a law that requires contractors doing business with the county to certify their employees are in the country legally. He has also supported efforts to get day laborers off street corners and backed doing raids aimed at overcrowded houses where Latino workers live with their families.
A spokesman for the Suffolk County police department did not immediately return a phone call Wednesday.
But police have said that since the killing of 37-year-old dry cleaning worker Marcelo Lucero on Nov. 8, 2008, they have been more attentive to bias crimes and have insisted they don't ask victims about their immigration status.
Seven teenagers have pleaded not guilty to hate crime and other charges in Lucero's death.
That slaying, along with other high-profile killings of Latino immigrants, drew national attention to a spike in bias crimes against Hispanics and helped spur a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into bias crimes on eastern Long Island.
The center's report, which includes a timeline of what its call anti-immigrant activism in Suffolk County going back to the late 1990s, was released on the same day that local police said that its hate crimes unit was investigating a burglary at a Spanish-language church in Patchogue, where anti-Hispanic notes were left on the altar.
Police would not say what the notes said.
That church, the Iglesia Evangelica Refugio de Salvacion, is across the tracks from a Long Island Rail Road train station, the same area where Lucero was stabbed to death. It's also where police say an Ecuadorean day laborer, Milton Balbuca, was attacked and robbed in a hate crime assault on Aug. 14. Two teenagers have pleaded not guilty to assault as a hate crime in that attack.