A friendly dog on a leash, a small padlock on the front door, and dark towels over taped-up windows are all that stand between Luis Ortiz and his fear that burglars will again break into his dilapidated mobile home and beat him to within an inch of his life.
The 43-year-old Mexican immigrant was beaten with a bat in his sleep one night last September. He suffered a broken jaw, his teeth were smashed and his hands were mangled.
It was one of at least four brutal robberies at immigrant homes in the Tifton area that night that left six people dead, including Ortiz’s cousin, and six injured.
“I stay up nights, wondering if it’ll happen again and I’ve nothing to defend me,” Ortiz said in Spanish, sitting on a patched-up sofa in the same trailer where he and his cousin were attacked, with crime-scene tape still rolled up in the dirt outside. “Police told me to buy a gun, but I don’t have an ID.”
The fear is shared by many of the thousands of Hispanic immigrants, especially the illegal ones, who have flocked to southern Georgia to pick cotton, peaches, peanuts and cotton. Criminals tend to prey on illegal immigrants because the victims are often too scared of being deported to call the police, and because many have no bank accounts and carry lots of cash.
Across the country, immigrants are often preyed on by criminals. But the brutality of the September attacks — with the victims beaten, shot and, in at least one case, raped — shocked this farm town of 15,000 into doing more to help the newcomers, most of whom are from Mexico.
“They’re here to stay, and now it’s the point where we have to get along,” Tifton Police Chief Jim Smith said.
The effort to help Tifton’s illegal immigrants comes amid a debate on Capitol Hill — and in the streets across the country — over whether to crack down on the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants or help them become U.S. citizens.
It is often difficult to prosecute crimes against immigrants because they are afraid to contact police. So to win the trust of immigrants, Tifton officers have stepped up patrols in trailer parks, where most of the laborers live.
Also, immigrants who can speak both English and Spanish are being selected to serve as police liaisons in their neighborhoods who can immediately report crimes or other trouble. Only a couple of Tifton’s 50 police officers speak a little Spanish, the chief said.
In addition, the police chief has been recruiting young Hispanics to work as clerks or become officers, like the two U.S.-born Amaya brothers, who will enter the police academy in May. They, their Salvadoran parents and seven siblings live a few mobile homes down a pothole-filled road from Ortiz.
“Everybody stayed locked up for two weeks for fear of going outside,” said Balmori Amaya, 20. “Lots of people here bust their butts to work to send money home. We just don’t understand why they’d do that to us.”
A complicating racial reality
Four people — two men and two women from neighboring Colquitt County — have been arrested on murder and other charges in the killings. They are believed to be part of a larger group responsible for similar home invasions, Tift County District Attorney Paul Bowden said.
He said he will wait for state investigators’ final report before determining whether to pursue the death penalty.
All four are black, stirring speculation that the attacks were racially motivated. Police say there is no evidence of that, but the Justice Department sent peacemakers to help ease tensions around this town, situated about 170 miles south of Atlanta.
Tereso Rodriguez, who still lives in the rickety trailer where robbers beat him, his wife and three of his children a few nights before the lethal attacks on Sept. 30, said he wonders if he was the victim of a hate crime.
“Sometimes I think it was some kind of racism,” Rodriguez said. “If it were only stealing, there’d be no need to hit us so much.”
For his part, Ortiz is determined to stick it out in the U.S., where he moved seven years ago from Mexico. “I’ve [got] to help my family. They can’t help me,” he said.