- The Washington Times - Friday, October 25, 2002

At Oscar's, El Salon De Las Estrellas in Hyattsville, the Spanish-language channel bellows in one corner, little children giggle as they play tag around cushioned chairs center stage, and grown-ups engage in a community conversation that is at once passionate and purposeful.

A scene repeated at little shops and salons throughout the metropolitan area, the Numero Uno topic of the swift speeches unmistakable in any language is the serial sniper.

But the representative sentiment expressed by this Latino community's perspective earlier this week is that they "are feeling upset" about a triple threat as law enforcement officials sought to solve this heinous crime spree.

"I'm crying, crying, crying all day long because I'm so upset," said Carmen Garcia, owner of Oscar's salons in Hyattsville and Northwest on Tuesday. "We have to worry about the sniper, the police and the immigration. It's not fair."

The salon is a community gathering spot watched over by Mrs. Garcia.

"Si, I'm disappointing with the police," said Tony Hernandez of the District, who looks to his sons to ask if he is using the right English words to express his pained thoughts.

His fears are focused on his friends who have been scared by police who pointed guns in their faces at checkpoints.

Maribel Juarez, a community-outreach coordinator with a Latino organization in the District, simply states that, "It's very confusing."

What has Mrs. Garcia, Mr. Hernandez and Mrs. Juarez most upset is what they view as the disparate treatment Latinos have received at the hands of the police and the media in the midst of the sniper attacks that began Oct. 2. The language barrier has only made the tense situation more difficult to understand.

Mrs. Garcia bristles at the term "illegal" when references are made to Latino immigrants as if "Latino, Latino, Latino is bad, but not everybody is like that because we have good Latino people, like me, who are coming to this country and are working hard and doing the jobs that the American people don't want to do."

At the outset of the investigation, initial lookout reports mentioned possible "Hispanic" suspects or someone with "olive" skin. To make matters worse, Mrs. Garcia pointed out, many Latinos are construction and contract workers who travel in the innocuous-looking white vans with ladder racks that police were looking for.

One man, who didn't give his name, tried to reassure the group that police have to stop everyone to do their job and he had seen a newspaper picture of a "blanco" being handcuffed.

Mrs. Garcia said she understands that police have to search, but she stood firm in her belief that of the searches that "it's not equal." "When they stop the white guy, they just look and let him go, but the Latino they put there on the ground and put the face to the gun and then take away," she says demonstratively recreating the scene she's seen played out several times on television.

Not only did they believe that Latinos were being stopped more frequently by the police and detained longer, their bigger concern was with their being turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service when they have done nothing wrong.

What really set off this group Tuesday was the apprehension of two men, one Mexican and one Guatemalan, outside Richmond the previous day in connection with the Ashland, Va., shooting last weekend. Later, it turned out that those men unfortunately were just in the wrong place at the wrong time; however, they were still turned over to INS officials for possible deportation.

"Whether you have the [residency] paper or don't have the paper, [police] are not supposed to ask," she said. "It's that violating the rights of these people?" Latino radio and television stations, such as Univision and Radio America, were inundated with callers this week upset by that mistaken arrest, and by what they said were police asking for "their papers" during the roadblocks, especially after the Tuesday-morning shooting of a bus driver in Aspen Hill.

Wendy Thompson, general manager of Telemundo, said they tried to allay callers' fears but some stations seized on the sentiments expressed about discrimination, which created even greater hysteria.

Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose, obviously made aware of the situation, sought to reassure local immigrants that they would not be referred to INS if they came forward with any evidence. The INS also issued a statement saying not only would they not deport anyone, but also offered extended work visas.

"People say, 'Oh, no, I don't believe it.' Nobody trust that," Mrs. Garcia said. "They scared the police will put me in jail if I try to help."

Mrs. Garcia said when she came to the United States nearly 15 years ago from war-torn El Salvador, she "felt like I'm coming to paradise." Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, "I'm feeling not very [safe] here." Some people have told her they may leave for another country, but Mrs. Garcia says she's staying put in her shop even though the threat of a sniper and the threat of the United States going to war hurt business. "If you love this country, you have to stay here and support it," she said.

Still, she is "disappointed about the system of this country working in this case."

As a black woman weary of the frequent police lookouts for "a black male in his 20s wearing sneakers" when a crime occurs, I can relate and am sensitive to Carmen and company's pleading.

My initial reaction, for example, to the eyewitness account of seeing an "olive-skinned" person leaving the scene of the shooting outside the Home Depot in Falls Church was that they've got to be kidding.

That area of Northern Virginia is a virtual melting pot, where almost everyone wears "olive' or "other than" skin. Such vacuous descriptions are not at all helpful, given the changing demographics of many communities even if it had been true in this case, which it was not. All things are subjective, as seen through the eyes of the beholder.

As the immigrant population continues to grow, the police and the public should attempt to become more aware of the fears and sensibilities of our unique neighbors. Most important, law enforcement officials are going to have to do a better job of working with the Latino community and gaining their trust.

As we have learned from the universal trail of tears left in this sniper's wake, violence is an equal-opportunity predator man, woman or child; white, black or brown. Indeed, "It's not fair."

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