Last Friday morning, June 1, immigrants' rights activists gathered next to a mural painted on the wall of the La Sirenita restaurant on NE Alberta, and not just to enjoy the sunshine and smell of fresh tortillas. They were there to lash out against the beatings of two Latino men in a rural Clackamas County park two weeks ago by a group of young Caucasians allegedly yelling, "Go back to Mexico."
But in a larger sense, the activists were there to speak out against the current wave of perceived anti-immigrant rhetoric that has swept through mainstream media outlets, state legislatures, and the federal government, which they say has fostered an environment in which hate crimes can happen—hate crimes like the several white swastikas scrawled in spray paint on La Sirenita's exterior mural.
One of the speakers, Aeryca Steinbauer of advocacy group CAUSA, said both incidents—the beatings and the swastikas—were "symptoms of rampant xenophobia" and cited a slate of anti-immigrant laws being debated in the Oregon legislature. Among those are bills to make English the official language of Oregon; to force the state to comply with the federal REAL ID Act, which requires proof of citizenship for most government benefits, drivers' licenses, and voter registration; and to deputize local police officers as immigration enforcement agents.
Activists believe that such legislation (even if it doesn't go anywhere, which is the likely fate of the above bills), coupled with frequent attacks against immigrants in the media, give legitimacy to xenophobia, leading to an increase in literal attacks like the one that happened in Clackamas County.
"There's absolutely an increase in fear and absolutely an increase in hate crimes," says Cara Shufelt, an organizer for the Rural Organizing Project. "The reality is that there are a lot of incidents that are never reported. People in these communities have a real fear of a backlash, or of what they think will happen to them [legally] because of their immigration status" if they report problems of violence or harassment.
"We saw the same thing happen in the queer community in the early '90s," Shufelt adds. "With the ballot measures pushed by the Oregon Citizens Alliance, there was an increase in anti-gay hate crimes."
According to organizers, the situation is more dangerous in rural areas—but the most "vulnerable, visible populations are the day laborers," says Ignacio Paramo, an organizer for the VOZ Workers' Rights Education Project. "In the last few years, we've seen an increase in all kinds of abuse, even physical abuse," he says, "especially with this anti-immigration legislation. But it doesn't get reported because people are scared."
For day laborers, there's an added danger—of not getting paid. "We've seen an increase in unpaid wages, of people picking up workers and then after the work is done, saying, 'I'm not going to pay you because you're undocumented and don't have a Social Security number,'" Paramo says.
Last Sunday, 150 people gathered in an Oregon City park to hold a vigil for the two Latino men beaten, and, according to Shufelt, to "show a quick and clear response to the hate crimes."
"If you don't respond to the attacks," she adds, "it sends a message that hate activities are okay."