The truth about Eli Mystal and illegal immigrants

KW: The story of then-Legislator Elie Mystal saying an outrageous remark about immigrants, and the response to that remark, demonstrates some stark realities about the difficulties of community organizing, public communications, and keeping relationships among activists.

The story below, by Elie Mystal’s son, inspires me, by confronting two awkward situations: former Legislator Elie Mystal, a fallen hero (and a friend of our family) and the racism of the suburban culture we are immersed in.

posted at Long Island Wins
In the News   Dear Day Laborers: Allow Me To Apologize

By Elie Mystal, guest blogger September 9, 2009

Here’s a blog post from Elie Mystal, the son of the former Amityville legislator of the same name. The post originally appeared September 2, 2009, on True/Slant as a response to his father’s mention as an inflammatory politician in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Climate of Fear” report. The report looked closely at the violent attacks against Latino immigrants in Suffolk County over the past decade.

I have a lot of email accounts, and this morning they all simultaneously caught on fire. A hot story? Adulation for my fast-talking Fox Business appearance? Not exactly.

Here are some of the subject lines I received today:

“Why Do You Hate Latinos?”

“Turns Out You’re The Racist, Elie.”

“Right on man!!!”

“I Hope You’re Not Related.”

Related? Oh boy, I knew where that one was going before I opened the message. Many people emailed me a link from today’s New York Times. The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report detailing the difficult environment for Latinos on Long Island. In my little world, this was the money-quote:

“The report also highlighted a comment by Elie Mystal, a county legislator from Amityville, who said during a hearing in 2007 that if day laborers started gathering in his neighborhood, ‘I would load my gun and start shooting, period.’; He later apologized for the remark and said he had been joking, according to news media reports.”(via Report Cites Atmosphere of Ethnic Hatred in Suffolk County – NYTimes.com)

Hi Dad, how are you today?

Let’s open up the Mystal family photo album, after the jump.

The Times article included a quote from my father. We share a name, a Y chromosome, and a very big mouth that occasionally flaps up and down without the benefit of “internal monologue.”

Just to be clear, I do not advocate shooting migrant day laborers. Shooting people is bad. Shooting a peaceful assemblage of people looking for work is worse. Please do not shoot anybody.

Now if I knew what my father was thinking, I’m sure my therapy bills would be lower. My dad doesn’t own a gun and is an immigrant himself. I’m pretty sure he knows that armed Long Islanders randomly casting bullets into groups of brown people would limit his own long term survivability long before it had an effect on public policy.

So I believe my Dad when he said he was joking. And — having heard of some of my father’s jokes about black people — I’m actually pretty lucky that this is the one that got printed.

But the Southern Poverty Law Center really gets to the problem with my father’s joke. From the Times article:

“Latino immigrants in Suffolk County live in fear,” the report said. “Political leaders in the county have done little to discourage the hatred, and some have actively fanned the flames.”

Bingo! Political leaders in suburban communities do not call their constituents out for their hatred and distrust of immigrant populations. It isn’t just on Long Island — though Long Island is a particularly interesting case given its proximity to the most diverse city on the planet. But political leaders in many northern communities — liberals like my father — play to the unenlightened fears of the voters that show up and make campaign contributions.

Why? Well, have you ever tried to say, “You have an unenlightened and borderline racist distrust of Latinos, but I appreciate your check. Please make it payable to “Committee to Elect …” I’ve seen my father try to make that argument. It doesn’t roll off the tongue.

The middle class suburban voters (of all races) have a point here as well. When you look at these well manicured suburban communities — communities which are “manicured” of course on the backs of hard working immigrant workers willing to do it for a fraction of what a professional landscaper would charge — you can understand how groups of grown men walking up and down the road would freak some people out. You’d like those lucky enough to own homes to offer them a glass of lemonade. But this is America and it’s not entirely surprising when they call the cops.

That was the context for my Dad’s remark. The legislator was debating a 2007 anti-loitering bill that would crack down on people looking for work on Suffolk County roads. Many constituents were worried about their safety. Immigrant rights advocates suggested that supporters of the bill were just being racist, and my Dad contended that the constituents had legitimate concerns. … And then he made his attempt at humor.

He voted against the bill. I mean Jesus, it’s not like I was raised by Republicans.

That of course has nothing to do with the point the Southern Poverty Law Center was trying to make. It is not enough for our liberal politicians to point to their voting records. The rhetoric directed against immigrants in this country is over the top. It’s not funny and we shouldn’t condone it, especially from our community leaders.

My dad, I’m sure, is embarrassed by what happened. But not just because an unfortunate remark was reprinted in the New York Times. But because communities like Suffolk County, Long Island, are still struggling to find a common ground of tolerance among all the people who live and work there.

We still have work to do.

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