Brown: Suffolk anti-immigrant frenzy accomplished little

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Day laborers gather in Locust Valley. The Town Day laborers gather in Locust Valley. The Town of Oyster Bay passed an ordinance to fine day laborers and contractors for soliciting work on public roads. (Dec. 17, 2009) Photo Credit: David Pokress

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

Arizona's tough new immigration law won't do what its governor wants.

It won't make illegal immigrants any less illegal.

Nor will it make them disappear.

That's the hard lesson of Suffolk County, where more than a decade of anti-illegal immigrant frenzy did little but fuel a spate of violence. In Suffolk, a failed proposal to deputize police officers as immigration agents a few years ago helped push illegal immigrants deeper into darkness.

It created a class of people hiding in plain sight. When gangs such as MS-13 preyed upon them, and homegrown bands of youth hunted, beat or robbed them, illegal immigrants remained silent.

Out of sight. Out of mind.

Except if they lived in crowded housing in lower- and working-class communities. But even that was OK for too many Suffolk residents using cheap labor to wash dishes, mow lawns, build houses.

When day laborers rushed into the street, and into the vehicles of willing contractors, residents rightly complained. In Glen Cove, officials responded with one of the first sites on the Eastern Seaboard aimed at controlling the crowd. Sites like that one also gave laborers a chance to learn English.

Under then-Glen Cove Mayor Thomas Suozzi, the city also enforced anti-loitering laws. And did aggressive code enforcement against overcrowding to ensure that houses were safe.

The measures, still in place, didn't shore up the nation's porous borders or mitigate the U.S. government's abysmal failure to enact a sane national immigration policy. But they helped Glen Cove.

In Suffolk - as in Arizona - the federal government's failure on immigration was re-focused on illegal immigrants themselves. What followed was a tide of elected-official-fueled, anti-immigrant sentiment.

Beatings, a firebombing, the brutal killing that claimed Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero.

Yes, Lucero was in the United States illegally. But, as the prosecutor said during the trial of Jeffrey Conroy, who was convicted in the death last Monday, Lucero died because he fought back. He did not do what was expected of illegal immigrants in Suffolk. He did not offer up his wallet, accept a punch that split both lips and walk away.

Two days after Conroy was convicted of manslaughter as a hate crime and other charges in Lucero's death, Suffolk officials announced the arrest of two other suspects, all of 18 and 19, and charged as ringleaders in a youthful band of robbers that, like Conroy, sought out men they believed to be illegal and Hispanic.

But the victims - one of whom was not Hispanic - did not sprint to the shadows; they went to police.

None of that violence occurred in Nassau, where the county government built on Glen Cove's work rather than trying to take federal matters into its own hands. In Suffolk, a decade of overt attempts to drive out illegal immigrants did little but offer bored, restless teenagers a cruel new pastime.

Immigration policy is Washington's job. And it's essential that it get done.

But as long as elected officials keep making illegal immigrants themselves the problem, nothing will change. Continued overheated rhetoric, and heavy-handed laws like the one passed in Arizona, will do nothing but block the kind of comprehensive immigration reform the nation so desperately needs.

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