Just a few days before Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed into law an immigration bill that is essentially based on the presumption that undocumented immigrants are dangerous criminals, a heroic Guatemalan immigrant lay dying in the street in Jamaica, Queens after saving a woman from her attacker. Several people walked by Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax’s bleeding body until someone finally called the police, more than an hour later. While some have identified the circumstances surrounding Tale-Yax’s death as an unfortunate, but fascinating psychological study in bystander behavior, others have pointed to a more simple explanation: immigration status.
The New York Times describes the area where Tale-Yax was killed as a “hardscrabble neighborhood with large populations of Central American immigrants and of homeless men.” At the Iglesia Cristo Peniel, Uber Bautista, who identified himself as a church elder, said that he believed the inaction of Queens residents might have stemmed from undocumented immigrants’ trying to escape detection. “So they’re going to be very afraid to call the authorities if they see something,” he told the New York Times. “It’s not that people don’t care.” Grainy surveillance video released by the New York Post documents what happened:
Undocumented immigrants have traditionally been reluctant to talk to the police, even in places like New York City, where police officers are not allowed to enforce immigration law. In neighborhoods where local law enforcement is empowered to act as immigration agents — as all Arizona police officers will soon be compelled to do — it only makes matters worse. A 2009 report released by the Police Foundation indicated that immigration enforcement by local police exacerbates fear in communities already distrustful of police in addition to diverting scarce resources and increasing law enforcement’s exposure to liability and litigation. One police officer pointed out, “How do you police a community that will not talk to you?”
The bill that Brewer signed off on aims to “identify, prosecute and deport” undocumented immigrants and will give local police officers the power to detain anyone suspected of being in the U.S. illegally. While the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police, the Mesa and Arizona Fraternal Order of Police, and the Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative have all opposed Arizona’s new law for reasons similar to the ones cited by the Police Foundation, Brewer justified her decision by stating that “there is no higher priority than protecting the citizens of Arizona.” “We cannot sacrifice our safety to the murderous greed of drug cartels,” said Brewer. “We cannot stand idly by as drop houses, kidnappings and violence compromise our quality of life.”
Aside from the fact that many have pointed out that Arizona’s law will make the state less safe, a century of research has shown that immigrants are not murderous, greedy drug cartel operatives as Brewer suggests. Numerous studies have confirmed that immigrants “are less likely to commit crimes or be behind bars than the native born.” While the anti-immigrant right is always quick to jump on stories of immigrant criminality and portray them as the norm, Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, “a Guatemalan immigrant [who] eked out a living working odd jobs” and “recently [was] out of work and lost his home in Queens,” lived a quiet, humble life that more closely resembles the average immigrant experience. His death, meanwhile, represents a sad and violent ending which may say as much about the broken U.S. immigration system as it does about human nature.