SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- To listen to the immigration debate, you would think illegal immigrants have it easy.
Ruben Navarrette says the beating death of Luis Ramirez is dramatic proof that lives of illegal immigrants are hard.
That's nonsense. America has a long tradition of animosity toward legal immigrants, let alone illegal ones. The undocumented are preyed upon by thugs, cheated by swindlers, exploited by employers, harassed by Minutemen, and made into scapegoats for society's ills by opportunistic talk radio blowhards and cable news fear-peddlers.
The life of an illegal immigrant shouldn't be a walk in the park. But what most Americans don't realize is that, far from being easy, that life is quite difficult.
In fact, prosecutors say, for Luis Ramirez, it was murder.
The 25-year-old undocumented immigrant from Shenandoah, Pennsylvania suffered head injuries after he was viciously beaten July 12 by a pack of at least six teenagers. Ramirez was left in convulsions and foaming at the mouth. His attackers stomped him so hard that an imprint of the Jesus medallion he wore was embedded on his chest.
Town pooh-bahs and police -- putting public relations before public safety -- at first tried to downplay the incident by insisting that this was simply an adolescent fight with tragic and unfortunate consequences.
Would they also say that lynchings in the South were just horseplay that got out of hand?
Sorry. You don't get off that easy. I bet just about everyone in that small town of 5,000, northwest of Philadelphia, knows exactly what happened to Luis Ramirez.
That includes the retired Philadelphia cop who lives on the block where the beating occurred; she told authorities that afterward, she heard youths warning other Latinos to leave town or suffer the same fate as Ramirez.
And it includes Luis' 24-year-old fiancee, Crystal Dillman, who is white and grew up in Shenandoah. Dillman, who had two children with Ramirez, told The Associated Press: "People in this town are very racist toward Hispanic people. They think right away if you're Mexican, you're illegal, and you're no good." She said that her husband-to-be was often subjected to ethnic slurs, including being called a "dirty Mexican" and told to go back to Mexico.
As it turns out, because of a senseless and barbaric act, Luis is going back to Mexico after all -- for burial.
Authorities now allege that the thugs who beat Luis shouted racial and ethnic epithets. They've charged 16-year-old Brandon J. Piekarsky and 17-year-old Colin J. Walsh as adults with homicide and 18-year-old Derrick M. Donchak with aggravated assault. All three were charged with ethnic intimidation. Another juvenile, whom police haven't named, was charged with assault, and police are continuing to investigate.
Meanwhile, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) has called for the U.S. Justice Department to open a federal civil rights investigation into the case to determine if this was a hate crime and, if so, to prosecute the young men under federal hate crime laws. And on Wednesday, the Justice Department announced that its civil rights division has opened a criminal investigation.
I'll second that. If the accused are guilty, the punishment should be swift and harsh. But government isn't the solution, because it didn't create the problem. Where did these little monsters pick up their prejudices? You know where it usually happens.
Racism begins and ends at the dinner table. And thanks to how poisonous the immigration debate has become, some of what is being served up across America will turn your stomach.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. Read his column here.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.