A link between immigration, gang crime?

Most convicted in Goshen shootings are U.S. citizens.

Southbend Tribune Staff Writer

October 5, 2007 When members of a rival gang killed a 14-year-old Latino boy in the passenger seat of a car on a Goshen street, the people of the small, industrial city seemed to have had enough.

The shooting, late on a Saturday night in February 2006, was apparently in retaliation for a similar attack in April 2005 that took the life of a 16-year-old Latino boy.

Community leaders worried that ethnic gangs, once unknown in the city, could grip it by the throat.

When a couple of months later, in April 2006, thousands of immigrant rights supporters, many of them Hispanic, took to the streets of the city in support of comprehensive immigration reform, dissenters suggested that deporting the immigrants would tame the city’s gang violence.

But according to a Tribune examination, most of the 12 young men who were subsequently convicted of gang-related crimes in the two shootings are not deportable: They were born and raised in the United States. Only two were in the country illegally.

The ‘Americanization’ of immigrants

That fact does not surprise officers of the Goshen and Elkhart County police forces who work closely to fight gang culture and crime.

“A lot of the gang members we’ve dealt with were born and raised in this country,” said Patrolman Rich Matteson, a certified gang specialist with the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department.

Detective Stephen Priem of the Goshen Police Department agreed.

“It’s a criminal behavior issue,” he said. “It’s not an immigration issue.”

Joe Guerrero, who works closely with Goshen schools to deter youth from joining gangs, said, “The impression that people have is that immigrants brought gangs to Goshen and to America, when it’s actually quite the opposite.”

The Tribune found that three of the 12 young men involved in the shootings were born in Mexico, three in Texas and six in California. Of the Mexican natives, two were in the country illegally and have been deported; one is a legal permanent resident who faces deportation upon his release from prison.

Police have said the 12 young men, whose ages range from 16 to 21 years, belonged to three Hispanic gangs: SUR-13, Norteños and Vatos Locos. The first two are traditional rivals who trace their origins to the California prison system; the latter’s Goshen incarnation, Guerrero said, was instituted by American-born Texan migrants.

Guerrero, who grew up knowing Chicago gang life and is now executive director of the gang control organization Communities in Schools, dates Goshen’s Hispanic gang life to the late 1980s or early 1990s. He said illegal immigrants who subsequently joined gangs have been “sucked in” to the subculture, lured in part by a promise of protection and belonging.

“Kids that come from Mexico, El Salvador, they did not bring the gang culture here. They landed in a pool that was contaminated with this stuff,” Guerrero said. “The root of the problem is not with immigrants, it’s with how we raise our kids.”

Most of the “hard-core kids” who lure others into gangs are American-born, Guerrero said, sometimes second-, third-, or fourth-generation.

“It’s a shame that as a community we are trying to shrug off our responsibility and we’re blaming other communities,” said Guerrero, who calls the adoption of immigrants into gangs “the Americanization of these kids.” Gang violence, he said, “is caused by our ideas, our media, our outlets.”

Carlos Hernandez, a Christian pastor at Praise Chapel Ministries in Goshen, said he’s seen young, undocumented immigrants join but not launch gangs. He and others who have looked closely at gang life in Goshen said undocumented immigrants may share some of the same reasons with others for becoming gang lovers.

A search for protection

Although gang culture may run in a family and be passed on from one generation to another, as in Hernandez’s case, new recruits often become fresh prey for similar reasons.

Hernandez, who followed his parents’ footsteps in becoming an East Los Angeles gang member at the raw age of 10, said newcomers, be they American or foreign-born, often join gangs in a desperate search for protection.

“They want protection from racism,” said Hernandez, who now works closely with gang-prone youth to help them find what they seek in religion. “They get bullied around in schools. They get called names. They need friends.”

Those who seek a solid foothold in a new protective circle of allies often hail from broken homes.

Other reasons include ego fulfillment, fear, a search for identity, education deficiencies and the fascination that gang power and its media portrayal hold for alienated youth who are trying to become as cool as those in the popular crowd, said Matteson, the gang specialist.

Guerrero, of Communities In Schools, agreed that single-parent households are “absolutely” a contributing factor to kids joining gangs.

In fact, single-parent households may contribute to crime in general. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 56 percent of jail inmates in the nation said in 2002 that they grew up in a single-parent household or with a guardian.

Dismantling gangs

Although Guerrero said good parenting may be the single worst enemy that any gang could face, he’s not too worried that rising deportations of undocumented immigrants who leave strapped families behind could contribute to the growing ranks of Hispanic gang members.

Few gang members are immigrants, Guerrero said, and of those who are, even fewer are in the country illegally.

But Guerrero and others admitted that the breakup of the nuclear family structure that may result from the deportation of one or more parents could foster the unintended consequence of rising local crime.

“Whenever parents don’t have the ability to set up boundaries, to set up discipline, technique … then we have trouble,” Guerrero said. “Single parents are often overrun, overworked … or don’t have the skills.”

Hernandez said, “If mom or dad gets deported, then there’s only one parent watching the kid. And the youth, right away they’re going to look for refuge … and most of the time they’re going to find it in gangs.”

Alex Alonso, a national gang expert who lives in Los Angeles, said by phone that illegal immigration’s role in gang culture is hotly debated there, too.

“The irony of it is most gang members in Los Angeles County are American citizens,” he said.

Alonso also said single-parent households are more vulnerable preys to gang recruiters, especially if a father figure is absent.

stef Posted by on Oct 5 2007. Filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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