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Teens Arrested for Firebombing Mexican Family's Home

Aired August 12, 2003 - 19:20   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: On New York's Long Island, several teenagers have been indicted on hate crime charges. They are accused of fire bombing a Mexican family's house during the Fourth of July weekend.
As Maria Hinojosa reports, anti-immigration groups have been active in this area.


MARIA HINOJOSA, CNN URBAN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The sun's barely up but on this suburban roadside there's already anger in the air.

Undocumented Mexicans are waiting for low-paying jobs. These protesters don't want them working here or even living here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We want them deported.

HINOJOSA: While no organized group has been linked to attacks on Mexicans, local anti-immigrant groups say they have called in public meetings for vigilantism and taking matters into their own hands. On July 5, somebody did.

That morning, prosecutors allege, five local teens motivated by anti-immigrant bias tossed a fiery rocket through the window of this house.

THOMAS SPOTA, SUFFOLK COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: They hear people talking about the Mexicans and they seem to feel that perhaps they can do something like this. Get some form of a thrill out of it.

HINOJOSA: The thrill was watching Sidhue (ph) and Maria Perez fighting to escape the flames with their two children.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Someone throwed a thing into our house.

HINOJOSA: they lost everything.

MARIA PEREZ, ARSON VICTIM (through translator): we aren't here to take their jobs. We came to find work. We meant no one any harm and the fact that they'd harm us on purpose makes me so sad.

HINOJOSA: They fear another attack. They're unable to sleep in peace.

PEREZ (through translator): People say that wherever we go they'll find us, that now they know what we look like. That's why we're afraid to show our faces.

HINOJOSA: Prosecutors say 17-year-old Kyle Mahler carried pictures of the KKK when he was arrested. His sister was aware of his anti-immigrant views in the community.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They're illegal here and don't pay their taxes and things. It causes a lot of tension with a lot of people.

HINOJOSA: But Kyle's family says he has friends of all races and the KKK pictures just reflect his interest in history.

SUSAN MAHLER, SUSPECT'S MOTHER: He's sorry about that night. He feels bad for the family. Just one of those things you wish you could take back.

HINOJOSA: Maria Hinojosa, Long Island.


COOPER: So was this a hate crime and was it an isolated incident or a sign of intense ethnic tension?

We have two guests joining us to discuss that question. The Reverend Allan Ramirez, a spokesman for the Perez-Garcia family and Suffolk County police commissioner John Gallagher.

Appreciate both of you joining us, gentlemen.

Mr. Ramirez, let me start off with you. Does Farmingville foster - I mean, is it a community of hate?

REV. ALLAN RAMIREZ, PEREZ-GARCIA FAMILY SPOKESMAN: For many years now, we have had a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment in this community. You have to remember that every day, and particularly on Saturdays, there are protests against the day labors, people who drive by with confederate flags yelling racial epithets at all the day laborers.

COOPER: So is it economic or is it racial?

RAMIREZ: It appears to be racial. It appears that people are uncomfortable seeing that there's a Mexican group of people who have come and moved into this community.

COOPER: Commissioner Gallagher, what do you think? I mean, you know this community well. Do you believe this is a racial problem or is it economic?

JOHN GALLAGHER, SUFFOLK COUNTY POLICE COMMISSIONER: Well, I think you can really classify it as both, racial and economic. But I think the economic problem is the basic one.

I think that it spills over at times, as it did in the case of these three individuals that were indicted today, into racial problems. But basically you're dealing with a community, a middle- class community, a hamlet with about 15,500 population, with between 3,000 and 5,000 of that population Mexicans.

And those Mexicans that are there are not there in -- as homeowners but as residents living sometimes ten and 15 to a house. Now, the problem with that is, the property value of the houses around them obviously is affected by that. You're dealing with a community of people who have a life stake in their homes. That's really the biggest...

COOPER: You're saying it's a question, really, of equity in people's homes. They don't want to lose the value of their homes.

Reverend Gallagher, what about that?

RAMIREZ: You meant to say Reverend Ramirez.

COOPER: I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Reverend Ramirez.

RAMIREZ: You have just ordained Mr. Gallagher. But I will answer that question, as Rev. Ramirez.

COOPER: I appreciate the correction.

RAMIREZ: The fact of the matter is that, according to the real estate agencies, the values of homes in Farmingville have gone up as much as the value of homes everywhere else on Long Island. So that doesn't hold water.

The fact of the matter is that in this community there is a lack of leadership. There is no political backbone on the part of any of the government officials. And I call them government officials and not leaders because they have no leadership skills.

They have ignored this problem. They've put their head in the sand and they think that by ignoring it, it is going to go away. And it is not going to go away. Unfortunately, they want another incident to take place because they are doing absolutely nothing.

COOPER: Let me ask Commissioner Gallagher about that. Are local officials, Commissioner Gallagher, taking this seriously?

GALLAGHER: I think they are taking it seriously. I don't agree with the Reverend Ramirez that it's a question of values going up or down.

We all know in police work perception is sometimes as important as reality. The perception on the part of a good number in the community is that their home equity is being diminished by the Mexican residents that are there.

Is there is anything you can do about that? Well, we can try. We can try to live with that problem and try to get the community to live with some reconciliation of their sense of their own equity being destroyed and the sense of it being equitable to the people who have come in.

COOPER: We're going to have to leave it there. Commissioner Gallagher, appreciate you joining us. And Reverend Ramirez, as well. Thank you very much.


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