NEW YORK (CNN) -- Latino immigrants living in Suffolk County, New York, have been living in an environment of intolerance and attacks against them, a report released Wednesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center said.
The atmosphere of intolerance is stoked in part by anti-immigrant groups, an indifferent police department, and county leaders themselves, according to the report.
The law center, which researches and keeps tabs on hate groups, became interested in the Long Island county after the November 8, 2008, murder of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant in Patchogue, New York. Prosecutors allege that the killers were a group of teenagers who targeted Latinos as part of a sport they called "beaner-hopping."
After four months of research in Suffolk County that included interviews with more than 70 Latino immigrants, 30 local religious leaders and other community leaders, the law center said it found a pattern of ethnic intolerance going back 10 years.
Low-level harassment of Latinos in Suffolk County is common, the report said.
"They are regularly taunted, spit upon and pelted with apples, full soda cans, beer bottles and other projectiles," the report said.
Latino residents riding bikes have been run off the road and others have been beaten with baseball bats or shot at with BB guns, the report said.
"Our feeling is that what we found is really the tip of a very ugly iceberg," Mark Potok, who edited the report, said at a news conference Wednesday. "We were told stories that are absolutely hair-raising."
The findings point to a disturbing larger trend, the report said.
The situation in Suffolk "is a microcosm of a problem facing the entire United States, where FBI statistics suggest a 40 percent rise in anti-Latino hate crimes between 2003 and 2007," the report said.
Tuesday night in Patchogue, the same city where Lucero was killed, a church frequented by Latinos was vandalized with anti-Mexican graffiti, Potok said.
The climate of fear in Suffolk County was created in part by anti-immigration voices that found sympathetic ears in the area, according to the report.
Anti-immigrant groups, such as the now-defunct Sachem Quality of Life, "heavily influenced the tone for public discourse on immigration in the area," the report said.
This stance was adopted by county leaders themselves, the law center said.
In August 2001, county legislator Michael D'Andre said that if his community were "attacked" by Latino day laborers, "we'll be up in arms; we'll be out with baseball bats."
In March 2007, another county legislator, Elie Mystal, said of Latino day laborers looking for work, "If I'm living in a neighborhood and people are gathering like that, I would load my gun and start shooting, period."
Both men later apologized for their remarks, according to news reports.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who was also criticized in the report for employing measures seen as anti-immigrant, responded to the report Wednesday with a list of facts he says were distorted or taken out of context by the law center.
For instance, a statement in the report that raids evicted day laborers from their homes in Suffolk County was distorted, Levy's office said. The action in question affected a condemned house where 60 people were living in hazardous conditions, the statement said.
The law center's contention that Levy tried to downplay the significance of the Lucero murder was a misrepresentation of a comment the executive made to a reporter, the statement said.
The law center report also said Latinos who had suffered harassment and crimes against them seldom reported them to police because they seemed indifferent.
"Many said police did not take their reports of attacks seriously, often blaming the victim instead," the report said.
The law center recommended that police receive training to take hate-motivated crimes more seriously, and that area leaders avoid language that could be conducive to inciting violence against immigrants.
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