A dangerous intolerance

Our view: Recent attacks against Hispanics may be spurred by anti-immigrant mood

August 24, 2010

The beating death of a Latino man in East Baltimore on Saturday would be bad enough under any circumstances. But the fact that the suspect in the case is described as a mentally deranged teenager who reportedly told police he killed 51-year-old Martin Reyes because of a pathological hatred toward "Mexicans" makes the crime doubly tragic.

According to police, Jermaine R. Holley, who is facing first-degree murder and hate crime charges in connection with Mr. Reyes' death, was being treated for schizophrenia, a serious psychological disorder that can render its victims incapable of distinguishing between reality and their own tortured thoughts.

Whether Mr. Holley actually heard voices in his head urging him to attack "Mexicans," we may never know. But police suspect he had stopped taking his anti-psychotic medications, and it's at least plausible that the clamorous anti-immigrant hysteria demonizing people of Hispanic descent nationwide may have played a role in tipping an already unbalanced mind over the edge into violence.

It would be foolish, however, to dismiss the attack on Mr. Reyes, an immigrant from Honduras, as an isolated incident carried out by a mentally deranged individual. In fact, Saturday's killing was just the latest in a string of unprovoked assaults targeting Latinos in East Baltimore. Last week, two Latino men were shot, one fatally, during an attempted robbery near Patterson Park. Police suspect a 13-year-old girl in that attack. And over the weekend, two other Latino men were robbed of $3 and a cell phone as they walked through Highlandtown. Police arrested three teenagers on armed robbery charges in that incident and are searching for three other assailants.

It may be premature to liken the local upsurge in violence against Latinos to the anti-immigrant backlash that has swept other parts of the country — and produced draconian new laws in states like Arizona and Virginia that seem expressly aimed at making Latino residents feel unwelcome regardless of their immigration status.

We are nowhere near that point in Maryland, but there are still valid reasons for Latinos in Baltimore to be alarmed. If nothing else, the recent attacks suggest that criminals see them as particularly vulnerable, believing that undocumented immigrants will fear calling attention to themselves as victims or be reluctant to testify as witnesses. And they know that even legal residents may feel disadvantaged by a language barrier that leaves many recent arrivals intimidated by the workings of an unfamiliar criminal justice system. Those are the sorts of impressions the city's politicians and law-enforcement officials, working alongside Latino community leaders, must make a concerted effort to dispel.

Over the last decade, the Latino neighborhoods around Fells Point have grown in size by nearly half; their 15,000 residents now make up almost 3 percent of the city's total population. That growth is likely to continue, slowly but surely shifting the ethnic and demographic character of Baltimore, which for so long was dominated by the city's black-white divide.

Now is the time for Baltimore to embrace its growing cultural and ethnic diversity, including the vibrant Spanish-speaking community that has taken root around Fells Point, whose restaurants, clubs and watering holes geared to a new generation of young people have contributed so much to the area's sparkling night life. The poisonous anti-immigrant bigotry and unthinking demonization of Latinos that have tarnished the reputations and brought shame on those states where such demagoguery is tolerated should have no place in this city's ongoing urban renaissance.

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