As a national debate erupted over Arizona's controversial immigration law this summer, a simmering anti-Mexican sentiment appeared to explode in Staten Island's Mexican enclave, Port Richmond.         

Ten of the 21 Staten Island cases investigated as hate crimes this year involve attacks on Mexicans in the neighborhood. Most victims report being robbed, beaten and peppered with ethnic slurs.

Diversity among the assailants involved in those assaults and an economic motive as consistent as the victims' ethnicities, however, further complicate the already murky definition of a hate crime.

Victims have reported white, Hispanic and black male attackers. A South Asian woman was arrested in connection with two attacks. The latest arrest was a 17-year-old Liberian immigrant, Derrian Williams, who once burglarized the African Refuge Center in Park Hill, according to the center's director.
"I don't think there's racism behind it," said Ed Josey, president of Staten Island's NAACP branch. "But those who are doing the beatings are not speaking about it. It's not like they're telling anyone why they do it."

Victim and police accounts do indicate, however, a majority of black perpetrators, in this neighborhood where reports show—and residents confirm—a history of tension between blacks and Mexicans.

Josey said that the diminishment of jobs and recreational facilities play just as much a role as baseless hate towards another ethnic group.

Rev. Terry Troia, executive director of Project Hospitality, and a long time community leader here, suggested a psychological element.

"There's a negative pulse in the community," she said. "The people committing these crimes hear this negative verbiage, like ‘Oh, these damn Mexicans are taking all the jobs,' and they act impulsively off that buzz."

The buzz of bigotry on Staten Island caught the eye of federal officials in November 2008, when on Election Night four young men sought "revenge," for President Obama's victory by randomly beating African-Americans.

Soon after, the U.S. Department of Justice assigned Matthew Lattimer, an agent with department's Community Relations Service to ease Staten Island's racial tensions.   Established under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, CRS functions behind the scenes to quell community conflicts, while cloaked in the secretive spirit imposed by the racial climate of the 1960s.

Given the history of sporadic assaults on Mexicans and the current flurry of attacks, Lattimer has become a fixture in Port Richmond, holding monthly meetings at El Centro, an immigration advocacy center on Castleton Avenue.

"He does a good job getting the dialog going," said Ron Meisels, a North Shore activist who has attended some meetings at El Centro and met Lattimer two years ago at an anti-bias summit. "But it's clear we need more than dialog. These young people need parks and facilities and more things to do."

For CRS agents, making information public can result in a misdemeanor conviction punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine or up to one year in prison. So Lattimer doesn't allow reporters to attend meetings at El Centro.
Residents appreciate that federal authorities finally recognize the borough's racial tension—a review of CRS annual reports from 1997 to 2006 contained not one reference to Staten Island—but after almost two years the violence has increased and their neighborhood is flooded with city cops.

"Supposedly my block has been under surveillance for years," said Ednita Lorenzo, a 22-year-old Mexican living in Port Richmond. "There's one of those NYPD signs up on the corner."

Lorenzo recalled feeling tension between blacks and Mexicans as far back as elementary school but doesn't attribute hate as the prime motivator in the recent attacks.

She said that thieves target Mexicans because cash-carrying day laborers might hesitate reporting an attack to the police because of their own immigration status.

That's why John Messiha, one of Lorenzo's childhood friends, accidentally killed her father's cousin, Ricardo Salinas, four years ago, in one of the many but less frequent attacks that foreshadowed this summer's violence.

Messiha, an Egyptian American, then 17, testified against his two black codefendants and admitted that they wanted to "rob a Mexican."

"It hurt when I saw that quote in the paper," Lorenzo said. "But I knew it was more about him being defenseless than him being Mexican."