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One town's struggle to accept immigrants

An influx of immigrants has brought tension - and violence - to a Long Island community.

Walking by the remains of a firebombed clapboard home that was formerly occupied by a family of Mexican immigrants, Pedro Escorza Vargas shrugs incredulously.

"This was racism," says Mr. Vargas, a Mexican day laborer. "Most of the people here know we just want to work, but there are some that hate us."

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Just after midnight on July 5, long after local Independence Day firework displays had ended, a flammable device was thrown into a small two-story house in this semi-suburban Long Island town. The house, with a family sleeping inside, was quickly enveloped in flames. Neighbors who heard the blast helped ferry the family out of the home without injury.

Though Suffolk County police initially stopped short of calling the firebombing a "bias crime," officer Robert Reecks said last week that after more investigation, "it looks like they have been targeted because of who they are." The FBI has also become involved.

Like other towns that have experienced a sudden influx of immigrants, Farmingville has become a flash point for those angry about the rising presence of nonwhite immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America, but also from Africa, India, China, and other parts of Asia. Although a virulently anti-immigrant group based in Farmingville lost much public support during the past year, the firebombing suggests hostilities haven't vanished. Indeed, the incident highlights the tensions sometimes produced when a sizable number of immigrants take up residence in places well removed from urban centers.

"How immigrants or any new group is met by those who have lived there for a while depends on the community itself," says Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks the operations of hate groups nationwide. "Some communities are able to assimilate these people. Some tolerate and even welcome them. Some go in the opposite direction."

For immigrants and their advocates, the location of the arson attack erased any doubt that the incident was meant to intimidate the 3,000 or so Latino immigrants that live and look for work in the town. Immediately next door to the firebombed house, now boarded up, lies the home once occupied by two Mexican laborers who were nearly killed after being picked up in Farmingville in 2000 by a pair of white supremacists masquerading as contractors. The laborers, both undocumented immigrants, were taken to an abandoned industrial park in a neighboring town and attacked with a pole-hole digger and a knife.

Back then, suspicions fixed on a highly visible anti-immigrant group called the Sachem Quality of Life Organization. However, the pair later convicted of attempted manslaughter and sentenced to 25 years in prison were neither members of Sachem nor residents of Farmingville. Rather, one lived in Queens and the other elsewhere on Long Island.

Ed Person, president of Sachem, flatly states that none of his members had anything to do with this month's firebombing. He adds, "If the federal and state governments were enforcing the law against these illegal aliens, a lot less of these problems would be going on."

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The furor over undocumented immigrants is a product of Long Island's geography, which shapes the area's insular lifestyle, says Charles Funk, who helped form Brookhaven Citizens for Peaceful Solutions, a community group to counter Sachem.

Mexican and Central American immigrants, some with papers but many without, have been gradually but steadily moving to towns and villages on Long Island for more than 20 years. Contractors, eager for cheap labor, have been quick to offer them work.

"Long Island is really very provincial," Mr. Funk says. It's a "dead-end island," he calls it, because to get away by land, drivers must pass through Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx.

Farmingville, pop. 15,000, is a mostly middle-income community of bungalows and ranch houses broken up by strip malls. The town itself is on land that belies its name: Its sandy pine soil and soft hills have never made for easy farming.

In 1998, Sachem began holding public meetings at the local firehouse. They called on politicians to pressure the Immigration and Naturalization Service to deport the rising number of men who waited for day-laborer work in front of town convenience stores.

Sachem's leaders had little trouble attracting 300 or more people at meetings or gathering a few dozen for pickets at day-laborer hiring sites. Police often had to be present to separate Sachem's members from groups of immigrants.

Through its local cable-television show, "Whose Community Is It Anyway?" Sachem charges that Farmingville's Latino immigrants have brought crime and congestion to the town while depressing local wages and squeezing town services. Suffolk County police, though, say there has been no increase in crime.

About a year ago, many Sachem members left the group when its newest leaders began aligning more closely with a network of armed militia groups operating in Arizona and Texas. In doing so, Sachem began to publicly embrace the theory that the Mexican government was encouraging emigration to the US as part of a larger plan to retake the southern half of North America.

In June, Chris Simcox, head of the Civil Homeland Defense, a vigilante border group that operates out of Tombstone, Ariz., headlined Sachem's annual conference, attended by just a handful of people. "Sachem's radical leadership was overthrown by an even more radical leadership," says Patrick Young, director of the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead, Long Island.

Though Sachem was exonerated from the 2000 assault and may have had nothing to do with the recent firebombing, Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, which also tracks hate groups, says the group's rhetoric fosters a climate of distrust and antipathy that makes bias crimes possible.

"I would say there is very little question that attacks on immigrants are on the rise," Mr. Potok says.

One former Sachem member, Bill Murphy, a state worker, says he's not against immigration as long as it's controlled and legal. Mr. Murphy has since helped start Concerned Residents for a Better Brookhaven. "The vast majority of people in this town favor immigration," he says - "but legal immigration."


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