Undocumented Kingstonians reluctant to report crimes

Carlos came to Kingston six months ago, illegally, from El Salvador. He has a job in manufacturing and lives on a gritty street in Midtown Kingston. He says he often goes out of his way to avoid groups of young men hanging out on the dark tree-shaded sidewalks late at night.

There’s another group Carlos stays away from: the police.

“I see the police doing something, I go around the corner. I’m not the only one,” said Carlos, turning to a friend in the lunch crowd at a Midtown Mexican restaurant. “You do the same thing, right?”

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For undocumented immigrants like Carlos, wariness of contact with police can leave them isolated and vulnerable. Police and advocates say Hispanics, a growing presence in Midtown, are often targeted for street robberies by criminals who believe (incorrectly in many cases, cops point out) that they will be less likely to report the crime. Street criminals may also view Hispanics as a attractive targets because many recent immigrants work in unregulated industries like food service or day labor, where they are paid in cash.

“It’s a crime of opportunity, and there’s probably more of them than we know about,” said Lt. Patrick Scanlon, head of the KPD’s detective division. “A guy is coming home from work late at night, he’s tired he’s outnumbered. [The robbers] know he’s working and he’s probably carrying some cash.”

The KPD investigated two such robberies and one attempt last month. The cases followed a now-familiar pattern. A Hispanic male returning home from work late at night is accosted by a group of black males who use the threat of violence (or in one case the threat of a weapon) to rob him of cash and valuables.

With only sketchy descriptions of the suspects to go on, police are unsure whether the robberies are related. But similar robbery patterns have occurred from time to time in the city. Scanlon admits they probably happen more frequently than they are reported.

Some of the reasons undocumented immigrants fail to report robberies are common to crime victims regardless of immigration status. Some people don’t want the hassle of poring over mug-books or testifying in court. Others may fear reprisals from perpetrators or their friends.

Fears of legal entanglement

For those in the country illegally, of course, the fear of entanglement with the legal system runs deeper. A Guatemalan man tells the story of an acquaintance pulled over by a state trooper for driving while talking on a cell phone. A subsequent investigation revealed that she was using a fake Social Security number. State police immediately contacted the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). She was subsequently deported. Such stories perpetuate fear of contact with police, despite reassurances from local police agencies that they are not interested in the legal status of those who come to them to report a crime.

“We’ve made it clear that we need to speak to these guys because if we don’t know what’s going on, we can’t do anything about it,” said Scanlon. “A victim is a victim.”

Ulster County District Attorney Holley Carnright said his office had successfully prosecuted a number of crimes against undocumented immigrants. The DA’s office maintains a roster of interpreters to assist with non-English speakers. It works closely with the county’s crime victims assistance bureau to keep victims involved once the legal process begins.

The challenge, Carnright said, is in getting undocumented immigrants to come forward to report crimes to police. The problem, he said, is particularly acute with undocumented immigrant victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, where fear of deportation combines with the same complex mix of issues that stymie prosecution of similar crimes against legal residents.

One cop fluent in Spanish

“The first problem we have is getting them into the office to convince them that they haven’t committed any crimes and we’re not going to turn them in to ICE,” said Carnright of prosecutions involving undocumented immigrant victims. “Once an arrest is made, we’ve been very successful in getting victims’ to cooperate and prosecuting offenders.”

Slideshow image photo by Flickr user jayneandd; used under Creative Commons license.

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