Three white youths have been arrested and charged by the Schuylkill County State’s Attorney with homicide and ethnic intimidation in the murder of undocumented Mexican immigrant Luis Ramirez in the small Northeastern Pennsylvania town of Shenandoah. Ramirez, 25, was attacked by a group of youths as he walked home on July 12, and witnesses said that his attackers yelled anti-Mexican epithets as they beat and kicked him. A kick in the head put him into a coma and he died on July 14 in a nearby hospital.

Ramirez’s fiancée and mother of his children, Crystal Dillman, 24, told the press she is now leaving town because she does not want her kids to have to put up with the kind of ethnic attacks that were leveled against their father.

Though Shenandoah officials claimed that there had been no anti-Latino or anti-immigrant agitation in their town, these claims are suspect.

Shenandoah is only 20 miles as the crow flies from Hazelton, Pennsylvania, where the mayor, Lou Barletta, is running as a Republican candidate for Congress based on a vicious anti-immigrant platform.

Barletta’s main claim to fame is his city ordinance that made it illegal for any landlord or merchant to employ, rent to or otherwise do business with undocumented immigrants. It was clear from the start that the town of Hazleton was going to enforce this ordinance selectively against Latinos. Although Hazleton is in a different Congressional District, there surely has been some regional impact. The Shenandoah town council considered a similar ordinance but it did not advance. However, Shenandoah did pass an English-only ordinance.

Hazleton and Shenandoah were both foci of massive immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century, as people from Ireland, Wales, Slovakia, Poland, Italy and other places flocked to the then prospering anthracite coal mines.

The area also has a history of militant labor struggle involving the United Mine Workers Union. In 1897, Hazleton was the site of the Latimer Massacre, in which Luzerne County Sheriff’s deputies fired on unarmed striking immigrant miners, killing 19. “Hunkies” was then the epithet hurled at the immigrant workers by their murderers, today it is “Dirty Mexicans”.

Then after the Second World War, much of the anthracite coal mining industry closed down, and towns like Hazleton and Shenandoah were left high and dry. Shenandoah shrank from nearly 30,000 inhabitants at its height in the 1920s to about 5,600 today. The income level of the area is, unsurprisingly, below national averages.

These are not stereotypical clannish “Southern” communities steeped in antebellum traditions of racial superiority. Their people are themselves the descendents of immigrants who, when they first came to the United States were treated as badly as Latinos are today, and fought back hard.

So whence the hate? It is being whipped up by right wing, mostly Republican politicians who have absolutely nothing to show for eight years in power except an illegal war and a tanking economy, and who therefore have to find red herrings to distract the voters. This is being facilitated by irresponsible media personalities like Lou Dobbs who retail slanderous information about Latinos, Mexicans and immigrants for hours every week. The Bush administration has pitched in with its immigration raids which it justifies on the basis of false information about immigrants as criminals and terrorists. It is an old, old story, whose victims have sometimes been Jews, sometimes Chinese, sometimes African-Americans, and now Latino immigrants.

There is a fight back. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) has sent a letter about the Shenandoah incident to U.S. attorney general Michael Mukasey, demanding action by the Criminal Section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, including an investigation and federal prosecutions for hate crimes. More generally, Latino and civil rights organizations such as the National Council of La Raza have mounted organized efforts to counter the hate campaigns. The Chicago City Council recently passed a resolution denouncing the hate speech (see “Chicago resolution rejects anti-immigrant rhetoric,” ).

But more is needed. We need to ask all our political, labor, community and religious leaders to make it a priority to speak out more strongly in defense of immigrant workers like Luis Ramirez, or more will die.

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