13: A Voice for Immigrants
At the very start of the foundation, one of the obvious needs of the immigrant community was messaging: putting out facts, including the contributions of immigrants to life on Long Island. To counter Levy’s persistently anti-immigrant rhetoric, it was clear that immigrants needed their own voice to be heard regularly in the media.
“We needed to get ahead of this and make it a tool that would get the news media talking, coming to us for facts, instead of gobbling up anything Steve Levy would say as pure truth, which is the way it was being reported,” Sandow said. He began by pulling together a team, with smart young people like Andrea Batista Schlesinger from the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. Schlesinger later moved on, becoming deputy director of US programs at the Open Society Foundations. Another member of that original team, Cristina Jiménez, became co-founder and executive director of United We Dream, the largest immigrant youth-led organization in the nation. In 2017, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation made Jiménez a member of the year’s class of MacArthur Fellows, an honor widely known as a “genius” grant.
“It’s kind of the way I’ve always operated, which is your little group starts with a few people, then somebody says, ‘I know somebody else who should be part of this conversation.’ ” Sandow said. “I talked to my national funding colleagues, and that’s how I got to Andrea.”
In the lively meetings of the team, Schlesinger made clear that blogging was the wave of the future, a way to get out a positive message about immigrants. That led inevitably to the creation of a website for a Hagedorn-funded entity called Long Island Wins. “We promote commonsense immigration policies that are rooted in respect and dignity that benefit all Long Islanders—local solutions where everyone ‘wins,’ ” the website proclaims.
From its beginnings in 2006 and 2007, Long Island Wins became an important voice. Its website included regular columns and blog posts by Patrick Young, the legal director of Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN), based in Hempstead, one of Long Island’s most diverse communities. Young also put together an Immigration 101 section on the website, drawn from his immigration law courses at Hofstra University. Anyone interested in knowing actual facts about immigration, instead of inflamed political rhetoric, could turn to it.
Looking back at the start of what became Long Island Wins, Young recalled the original need. “When Darren first floated the idea, it really was looking at the lack of ability by our organizations to create messages, to understand what the public was thinking,” Young said. That’s why the foundation funded public opinion surveys to better understand Long Islanders’ views on immigration. From Young’s perspective, the message from immigrant rights advocates at that time needed work. It either came across as too defensive or was more suitable to a more diverse urban environment than to Long Island.
To begin changing negative attitudes, Long Island Wins ran a series of TV ads with a positive message about immigration. It was important, Young argued, that Long Island Wins not try to focus on those who strongly opposed immigration, but on people who didn’t have the information to respond to anti-immigrant sentiments.
In August 2008, Maryann Sinclair Slutsky became the new executive director for Long Island Wins. That was less than three months before a cataclysmic event that raised everyone’s awareness of the depth of anti-immigrant venom on Long Island.
On the evening of November 8, seven teenagers from Patchogue-Medford High School went out into the streets of the Village of Patchogue to engage in something that, sadly, they did regularly: beating up Latinos. The victim they chose at random was Marcelo Lucero, an immigrant from Gualaceo, a town surrounded by mountains in Ecuador. He had arrived in America 16 years earlier, lived in Patchogue’s substantial Ecuadorian community, and worked in a dry cleaning shop. But the boys didn’t inquire about his life story or ask about his immigration status. His brown skin was evidence enough for them, and they attacked him.
To defend himself, Lucero removed his belt and began swinging it. One of the teenagers, Jeffrey Conroy, responded by stabbing him. Lucero bled to death a short distance from the scene of the attack.
In the days after Lucero’s death, critics of Levy blamed the county executive’s consistently anti-immigrant rhetoric for contributing to an atmosphere in which hate crimes directed at immigrants became more likely. Then Levy said something that further exacerbated tension. If Lucero had died in neighboring Nassau County, he argued, “it would be a one-day story.” His point? That Nassau had hate crimes too, but they didn’t attract nearly as much media attention as those crimes in Suffolk. This odd effort at self-defense infuriated immigrant rights advocates and illustrated yet again how some local political leaders did not value immigrant members of the community.
Though Levy later apologized for the “one-day story” comment, his voice on the immigration issue had been consistently inflammatory. In the period after Marcelo Lucero’s death, Long Island Wins played a pivotal role. Its stories, including those by Ted Hesson, who later covered immigration for Politico.com, provided an especially useful source of factual information.
“What was interesting was, we began to see that people like Steve Levy were being questioned at press conferences, based on the writing and research that Ted and I were doing,” Young recalled. “We were attacking the hate crime statistics that they put out.” What they wrote, covering the immigrants’ perspective, attracted calls from the New York Daily News, Newsday, and the New York Times.
In response to the killing of Marcelo Lucero, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a Hagedorn grantee, called for a Department of Justice investigation into the way the Suffolk County Police Department was failing to protect Latino immigrants. Ten months later, in September 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center released Climate of Fear: Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y., a study Hagedorn commissioned to expose the physical assaults and rhetorical abuses the county’s Latino immigrants had suffered for a decade at the hands of the public and from the mouths of local elected officials. The stories it told led the Department of Justice to intensify its investigation. That eventually led to a 2014 agreement between the Department of Justice and the police department on the reforms it would have to make. Hagedorn grantees continue to monitor the implementation of the reforms through regular meetings with the department and communication with the DOJ.
As the foundation’s grantees worked toward police reforms, Long Island Wins began to clarify that its primary audience was activists, immigrants, those who were favorably disposed towards immigration, and the media covering the issue. In addition, it started having a series of conferences, including one at Hofstra University that drew more than 400 people, including some who had not previously been active immigration advocates.
At the conference in 2015, people came up to Slutsky and said: “ ‘You know, five years ago, you never could have done this. People wouldn’t have come,’ ” she recalled. More people began to see the value and the importance of immigrants, and she attributed much of that to the work that advocates did after Marcelo Lucero’s death.
“That was a real seminal moment in the whole immigration movement,” Slutsky said. “For such an unfortunate, tragic event, at least some good came out of that, and people started to really understand that the treatment of immigrants, particularly Latinos, was just deplorable, and that this wasn’t right. It didn’t reflect our values.”
Over the years since that especially difficult time, Long Island Wins has been a useful resource for traditional media, while increasing its online readership and its presence on social media, and expanding into print media as well. Thanks to Amy Hagedorn’s relationship with the publisher of the Anton chain of weekly newspapers in Nassau County, the papers began to include a regular immigration column by Slutsky.
Taken together, the strategies of concentrating on media and messaging and launching an immigration-focused communications campaign have made a difference—especially in the eight years between the death of Marcelo Lucero and the election of Donald Trump, who entered the Oval Office pledging to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and to crack down on immigration from Muslim nations. Long Island Wins helped amplify the voice of immigrants and played an important role in convening US-born Long Island educators, business people, labor representatives, and others to educate them about immigrants and immigration.