EUGENE, Ore. — Sergio Reyes and two other Mexican immigrants were busy landscaping at their work site early this year when they were accosted by a man who threatened to cut off the head of one of them.

"It doesn't matter if I become an American citizen," Reyes said. "If your skin color is not white and your English is not perfect, you don't blend. Bottom line."

The man's later acquittal of all charges was seen by the three men as yet another in a long string of injustices they, and many immigrants to America, experience regularly.

More than one in five suspected hate crimes victimized Latinos, according to a News21 analysis of responses to the National Crime Victimization Survey data from 2012 to 2016. And hate incidents targeting Latinos and immigrants often go beyond name-calling and intimidation, with assaults, robberies, and even murder.

Landscape workers (from left) Sergio Reyes, Edu Martinez and Victor Herrera stand by the installation they were creating when they were confronted early this year by Brandon Scott Berry. Reyes, a crew leader who has worked 11 years for Living Concepts, said his employer has been very supportive since the incident.
Brendan Campbell / News21
Landscape workers (from left) Sergio Reyes, Edu Martinez and Victor Herrera stand by the installation they were creating when they were confronted early this year by Brandon Scott Berry. Reyes, a crew leader who has worked 11 years for Living Concepts, said his employer has been very supportive since the incident.

As targeting of their communities is on the rise, Latinos and immigrants are increasingly fearful of reporting racially motivated crimes and incidents to law enforcement, according to those interviewed by News21.

"In immigrant communities, the fear is palpable," said Monica Bauer, director of Hispanic affairs at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). "It's so much fear that I think the word doesn't really convey. It's almost terrified, like it's beyond fear. It's paralyzing fear."

Latino victims made up only 11 percent of racial-bias crimes reported to the FBI in 2016, but studies have shown the FBI substantially undercounts such crimes. Of 15,254 agencies providing statistics to the FBI in 2016, 88 percent reported zero hate crimes.

Hate-crime experts, victims and witnesses have said two major factors have exacerbated the problem recently: a perceived climate of anti-immigration after President Trump's election; and fears of reporting to authorities, especially among undocumented immigrants.

Nationwide, a 2018 report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found 34 anti-Latino hate crimes were reported in America's largest cities in the first two weeks after the 2016 election, a 176 percent increase over the year-to-date daily average.

"Post-election, I could tell that there was a change," said Pricila Garcia, 20, the daughter of Mexican immigrants living in Cleburne, Texas. "People became a little more brave with their words, especially when it came to hateful things that they said."

Pricila Garcia, 20, stands on a bridge overlooking train tracks in Cleburne, Texas. Garcia, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, said the tracks symbolize the deep socioeconomic divide in Cleburne.
Angel Mendoza / News21
Pricila Garcia, 20, stands on a bridge overlooking train tracks in Cleburne, Texas. Garcia, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, said the tracks symbolize the deep socioeconomic divide in Cleburne.

A 2018 report by Janice Iwama, a sociology researcher and professor at the University of Massachusetts, said the doubling of the immigrant population in the United States from 1990 to 2015, to more than 43 million, prompted anti-immigrant legislation at the state and federal levels.

Iwama's study also said there is "the common misperception that all Latinos are immigrants." In fact, two-thirds of the 57 million Hispanics living in the U.S. in 2015 were natural-born citizens, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study.

Advocacy groups, law enforcement and government officials across the country say they're trying to educate Latino community members and police to properly and sensitively identify and document hate incidents.

The ADL has been working with Mexican consulates in the U.S. to create an alternative method for vulnerable immigrant communities to report hate crimes. ADL's Bauer said the league will create a new database from these reports to share with law enforcement.

To date, the ADL has trained hundreds of people in consulates across 23 states to understand hate crimes and anti-immigrant extremism.

Sergio Reyes of Eugene, Oregon, said he was disappointed in a jury’s decision regarding his intimidation case, but he loves his city and is still “trying not to have any hard feelings.”
Brendan Campbell / News21
Sergio Reyes of Eugene, Oregon, said he was disappointed in a jury’s decision regarding his intimidation case, but he loves his city and is still “trying not to have any hard feelings.”

‘I’m white and you’re not’

In picturesque Eugene, home to the University of Oregon, the city is building strategies and resources to protect its residents, but the experiences of Latinos show that change comes slowly.

An annual report from Eugene's Office of Human Rights and Neighborhood Involvement said hate crimes nearly doubled from to 44 to 87 in 2017. Three violent anti-Latino attacks were reported in that time.

For Reyes, 39, it's telling that a jury found the man who threatened his landscaping crew not guilty.

Reyes said he recalled the man telling him: "I'll never get in trouble, because I'm white and you're not."

"You know what happened? We went to court, and he's a free man right now," Reyes said. "He was right."

A Confederate battle flag flies along the shore of Lake Pat Cleburne on July 4, 2018. Blanca Reyes, 20, a daughter of Mexican immigrants, said she chose to watch fireworks from her home to avoid the town-sponsored festivities.
Angel Mendoza / News21
A Confederate battle flag flies along the shore of Lake Pat Cleburne on July 4, 2018. Blanca Reyes, 20, a daughter of Mexican immigrants, said she chose to watch fireworks from her home to avoid the town-sponsored festivities.

‘If anything happens to us …’

In Cleburne, train tracks bisect the sparse, rural town in north Texas, named to honor a Confederate general. Its population is 66 percent white and 28 percent Hispanic, according to U.S. census data.

"On one side," said Pricila Garcia, "you have the rental houses that are falling apart, and it's nothing but minorities, and on the nicer side of town you have the kids that have the nice houses, the pools, the big yards."

Blanca Reyes, 20, holds a photo of her father, who’s still in Mexico. Reyes said her father told her to stand up for herself when she was experiencing racist comments, but the rise in anti-Latino activity has given her pause.
Angel Mendoza / News21
Blanca Reyes, 20, holds a photo of her father, who’s still in Mexico. Reyes said her father told her to stand up for herself when she was experiencing racist comments, but the rise in anti-Latino activity has given her pause.

Garcia, 20, and a daughter of Mexican immigrants, said the tracks mark a racial divide in a town where everyone knows one another but few know the struggles of immigrants.

"I really truly believe that the majority of us are victims of [hate] crimes," she said. "We're told not to draw any unnecessary attention to ourselves — even if you get robbed or exploited or you're in danger."

Cleburne lies in an area that saw a 71 percent increase in arrests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from 2016 to 2017 — second only to Florida, according to the Pew Research Center.

Garcia said she and her peers constantly fear losing their parents to deportation if they report crimes or even apply, as citizens, for college financial aid. One of the worst conversations of Garcia's life was with her parents after the election.

"They sat me down and said, 'Hey, we're putting you as the main on all of our bank accounts,'" she recalled tearfully. "'If anything happens to us, sell our stuff. The furniture, our clothes, everything, go sell everything, go live with your uncle, and take care of your brother and your sister.'"

Florida’s ‘invisible’ Guatemalans

Florida, the third most populous state, where one in five — about 4 million — are immigrants, has one of the worst records in the nation for reporting hate crimes, according to experts. The Florida Attorney General's Office reported just 52 hate crimes related to race or ethnicity in 2016.

One case, Bauer said, showed the culture of hate targeting the isolated Guatemalan immigrant community.

On April 18, 2015, Onésimo Marcelino López-Ramos, 18, was confronted outside his home in Jupiter by three men who beat him with a rock, a metal rod, and an ax handle, prosecutors said. The assistant state attorney said the men were "Guat hunting," referring to a practice of robbing and assaulting Guatemalans walking home on paydays.

The Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth, Florida, offers a multitude of humanitarian resources to hundreds of immigrant clients a month, according to assistant director Tim Gamwell.
Angel Mendoza / News21
The Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth, Florida, offers a multitude of humanitarian resources to hundreds of immigrant clients a month, according to assistant director Tim Gamwell.

"The reason we know what happened to Onésimo is because they killed him," Bauer said. "And my fear is that things are happening every single day, all the time, without us hearing about them because people are so terrified to come forward."

In May, one of three defendants, David Harris, 22, was convicted of first-degree murder, as well as a hate-crime charge, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Tim Gamwell, assistant executive director of the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth, said the decision by prosecutors to pursue hate-crime charges was pivotal.

"It's an acknowledgment that this community deserves protection, deserves recognition," he said.

Violence follows the most vulnerable

In California, the state with the largest Latino population — more than 15 million — reported that incidents of anti-Latino bias increased from 83 in 2016 to 126 in 2017, according to the California Department of Justice's annual hate crime report, released in July.

In Los Angeles County, violent hate crimes targeting transgender Latinas accounted for 20 of the 31 crimes motivated by gender identity, according to the 2016 Commission on Human Relations report. Ninety-seven percent of anti-transgender incidents were violent crimes, a proportion higher than for any other group the commission tracks, including Latinos.

Trans Latinas are doubly reluctant to call police, experts say. Latinos overall fear reporting due to possible deportation, and trans Latinas also say that law enforcement often blames them for their own victimization.

In January, Viccky Gutierrez, a trans immigrant from Honduras, died after she was stabbed multiple times in L.A. Her home was set ablaze, leaving her body unrecognizable. Kevyn Ramirez pleaded not guilty to first degree murder and two counts of arson, and awaits trial, according to court records.

Bamby Salcedo is the founder and CEO of the TransLatin@ Coalition, a nonprofit that provides resources for trans Latinas. "When we walk out into the streets, violence follows us everywhere we go — whether it's because we're Latinas, whether it's because we're immigrants, whether it's because we're trans, or maybe because we're all of those things."

Bamby Salcedo, founder and CEO of Translatin@ Coalition, a Los Angeles organization that provides humanitarian resources for trans Latina immigrants.
Angel Mendoza / News21
Bamby Salcedo, founder and CEO of Translatin@ Coalition, a Los Angeles organization that provides humanitarian resources for trans Latina immigrants.
This report is part of the "Hate in America" project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students and recent graduates from across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. For the complete project, visit hateinamerica.news21.com