New Haven Assaults Targeting Immigrants, Activists Say

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Alberto Serrano Corrano has 17 stitches in his head.

There’s also the neck issue, which he won’t be able to get surgery for because he doesn’t have medical insurance.

“I no longer have any other medication or treatment,” Serrano Corrano says.

But he has the Yale New Haven Hospital bills-one for $2,000, another for $1,000, and a third for $900-from the night he almost died.

It was after a friend’s party on June 6. He and some friends were walking home along Kimberly Avenue in the Hill neighborhood when a group of people approached them. Suddenly, they were under attack, Serrano Corrano says.

“I tried to intervene, so somebody wouldn’t hit my friend,” he says. “Somebody came up from behind and hit me with a baseball bat. I don’t remember anymore after that.”

John Lugo, an organizer with the labor and immigrant rights group Unidad Latina en Accion (ULA) does, however. He was one of the first people to get the call about the incident. Lugo rushed to the hospital where Serrano Corrano was in a coma.

“The doctor said he was going to die,” Lugo recalls. “Thankfully, he survived.”

Serrano Corrano woke up in the hospital bed two days later. If you ask Lugo and other activists from ULA, Serrano Corrano’s story is part of a wider New Haven trend: attacks on immigrants that police either take their time addressing or completely ignore.

How wide? ULA, which holds weekly meetings at its Howe Street headquarters has fielded around 20 complaints from immigrants claiming to have been assaulted over the past two months, Lugo says.

They’re addressing that, and other cases of assault at a Thursday late afternoon press conference, during which members of the immigrant community shared their accounts of being assaulted.

“Every time you talk about these issues, you hear ‘the same thing happened to me, and the police took a long time’,” Lugo says.

Prisciliano Rodriguez was a block away from his home in The Hill when it happened to him. He was coming back with groceries from C-Town when a pair of assailants stepped into his path.

“One pulled out a gun, and they started beating me,” Rodriguez says. “They took everything I had.”

This was in full view of passing motorists, he says.

“A car went by and saw I was being beaten, and they didn’t want to help me,” Rodriguez says.

And then another. This driver told him not to yell for help.

“’If you shout for help they’ll shoot’,” Rodriguez says, repeating the passerby’s words.

The attackers fled when they saw Rodriguez’s sister-in-law running toward them. The suspects were eventually arrested and have a pending trial-but it’s not uncommon for immigrant assault victims to be left hanging for lengths of time when they call 911 about a given incident, ULA says.

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Juana Islas, whose brother was killed in an assault eight years ago, has tears in her eyes as she addresses the group while recounting that memory, as well as the one from more recently-her son was attacked two months ago by two assailants, she says.

“It took 30 minutes for police to show up after they hit my son,” Islas says.

One of the problems is a shortage of 911 dispatchers that are bilingual, says Megan Fountain, another ULA organizer. That’s what she says the group was told when they met with Mayor Toni Harp. While that can slow things down, a reluctance on the part of some immigrants to approach law enforcement can hinder communication regarding assaults as well, ULA says.

In 2007 the city became the first to start giving out ID cards to its immigrant residents. Previously, individuals might avoid interactions with law enforcement-even if they were victimized-for fear of being asked about their immigration status, Lugo says. The I.D. cards came with a police protocol that would have prevented status-related arrests when immigrants reported crimes.

“It was a way to create some line of communication for the police,” Lugo says. “We thought that was going to change everything.”

And for a while, it did. Although ULA does not have any official statistics, their members in the immigrant communities they serve reported less assaults. But in 2009 the city’s grant funding that fueled the implementation of the program expired and wasn’t renewed. Immigrants can still get the card, but the city is limited in its ability to conduct education and outreach regarding the program so it is virtually invisible, ULA says.

Harp told The New Haven Independent that the city has formed a working group to address this.

It is estimated that around 10,000 people obtained a card in the program’s first five years. And it wasn’t just an ID-it could be used as a library card and, perhaps more importantly, a ticket to opening up a bank account.

Complaints alleging assaults against the city’s immigrant community are not new, and the fact that members were previously unable to open a bank account was thought to make them targets due to the assumption that they would be carrying a lot of cash on them, Lugo says.

“Some people in New Haven feel they can attack the immigrant community and they’re not going to say anything,” Lugo says. “We’re here to say that we will, and that we’re going to stand up for our community.”

And that starts with getting key players-namely members of the New Haven Police Department and Mayor Harp-to the table to begin discussing solutions, Lugo says. ULA plans to arrange that in the near future.

“There is impunity in many of these cases,” Lugo says. “We need to do something about it as a community. We need to start a dialogue.”

For now, the city will work on the first problem-the shortage of bilingual 911 dispatchers. Six of the city’s emergency dispatchers speak more than one language, and the goal is to add six more, says Laurence Grotheer, the Communications Director for Mayor Harp’s Office.

“The city is eager to be responsive to all facets of the community and address the needs of those whose language and culture are in fewer numbers,” Grotheer said over the phone the day after ULA’s press conference. “The city will continue working to be more versatile in its ability to work with members of these immigrant communities.”

And that’s starting with a policy change within the Department of Emergency Management. From now on, all new dispatchers have to be bilingual, according to Grotheer.

“Those plans were in place before yesterday’s press conference,” he said.

The New Haven Police Department did not return a request for comment.

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